US Makes First Moves to Block Turkey from F-35 Buy Over Russian S-400 Dispute

An F-35A Lightning II, like the type Turkey hopes to buy, flies over Luke AFB, Ariz., Oct. 31, 2018. The 56th Fighter Wing is responsible for the majority of the US Air Force’s F-35A pilot training and all partner nation F-35A training. Air Force photo by SSgt. Franklin R. Ramos.

The US government has taken steps to block the shipment of F-35 parts and technical information to its NATO ally Turkey—a development and production partner on the multinational strike fighter—because of Ankara’s refusal to terminate its planned purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system.

The steps are apparently not yet permanent, and Turkey is not yet “out” of the F-35 program, but the diplomatic situation is headed there if Turkey doesn’t change its mind about the purchase, the Pentagon said.

“The United States has suspended deliveries and activities associated with the stand-up of Turkey’s F-35 operational capability. Should Turkey procure the S-400, their continued participation in the F-35 program is at risk,” Charles Summers, acting Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement issued Monday.

The US “has been clear that Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 is unacceptable,” he added. “Therefore, the DOD has initiated steps necessary to ensure prudent program planning and resiliency of the F-35 supply chain. Secondary sources of supply for Turkish-produced parts are now in development.”

He said, “We very much regret” the F-35 situation with Turkey, but the US must take “prudent steps to protect the shared investments made in our critical technology.” He pledged dialog with Turkey will continue “until they forego delivery of the S-400.”

The S-400 is one of Russia’s most sophisticated air defense systems, and US defense officials have expressed alarm that Russian technicians assisting Turkey with the deployment of the system would gain critical insight in how to detect and target the stealthy F-35. Turkey expects to take delivery of the first S-400 in July.

The move is being announced during a week when NATO is holding a summit in Washington, D.C.,which Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, is slated to attend.

Turkey has already taken delivery of two F-35As, but the aircraft are based at Luke AFB, Ariz., where they are in the rotation for training US and international F-35A pilots. The country plans to eventually purchase 100 of the fighters; the first of which were to arrive in-country in November of this year.

Cutting ties with Turkey on the F-35 will complicate the program. Senior Air Force officials within the last few days have said they have been attending weekly meetings about the progress of the F-35, which depends on foreign vendors for a significant portion of parts. Cutting Turkey out of the manufacturing process will require finding new sources for the parts and elements it makes for the F-35, and removing 100 of the fighters from the multinational production targets would likely increase unit costs if those sales are not replaced with other production.

F-35 Joint Program Office director Vice Adm. Mat Winter told Air Force Magazine in December that he’d been tasked to provide the Pentagon with an assessment of how Turkey’s expulsion from the program would affect the program.

“Turkey produces 844 parts for me,” Winter said in the interview, “and they are quality parts, affordable parts, and delivered on time.” He said Turkey is “one of my best partners.” Those components include cockpit displays, landing gear elements and fuselage pieces, among other items. In addition to supplying components, Turkey was to become a second source for F-35 center fuselages, which are produced in the US by Northrop Grumman. Turkey was also to be the site of an F135 engine overhaul facility for F-35 users in the Middle East/Southwest Asia region. Such regional sites are being set up to reduce the out-of-service time when fighters go in for service or overhaul. Overhaul facilities for certain parts of the jet are being set up in Australia, Britain, Italy, and Japan.

The US has offered Turkey the option of buying Patriot air defense systems at a discount, but Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has steadfastly refused all such offers, insisting the S-400 sale and deployment will go forward. The move is one of the most significant military disputes between NATO partners since the Alliance was founded.

One of the chief points of friction between the US and Turkey is the the alliance the United States has had with Iraqi Kurds since 1991—a relationship Turkey has consistently complained about because it believes Iraqi Kurds supply and support Kurdish separatists in Turkey, which that country classes as terrorists. Turkey also is unhappy the US declines to extradite the Islamist cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Erdogan says played a role in the attempted 2016 Turkish coup.

A Lockheed Martin spokeswoman said the company would have no immediate comment on the decision. The F-35 Joint Program Office directed all questions to the Pentagon.