(CNSNews.com) – The National Defense Authorization Act passed by the U.S. Senate on Monday night includes a provision preventing the transfer of the world’s most advanced fighter aircraft to Turkey, a NATO ally whose Islamist government’s policies have set off alarm bells in Washington.
The move comes just days before F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin Corp. is due to formally hand over the first of the state-of-the-art stealth fighters to the Turks, at a ceremony in Fort Worth, Texas.
The bipartisan amendment is a response to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s impending purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system, and the incarceration of American pastor Andrew Brunson, on trial for terrorism and espionage-related offenses.
Sponsored by Senate Armed Services Committee members Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), it would prevent the transfer of F-35s to Turkey until Turkey’s participation in the Joint Strike Fighter program is re-evaluated.
It requires the secretary of defense to submit a plan to Congress to remove the Turkish government from the F-35 program.
“Given Turkish President Erdogan’s willingness to take American hostages, and his inability to fully guarantee the safety of American and NATO assets in Turkey, Senators Shaheen and Tillis felt it inappropriate and dangerous to send Turkey F-35 planes at this time,” Shaheen said in a statement Monday.
The Senate passed the FY 2019 NDAA by a vote of 85 to 10. The Senate and House will now work on reconciling their respective bills before the approved legislation goes to President Trump’s desk.
“Good for US Senate,” tweeted Foundation for Defense of Democracies CEO Mark Dubowitz. “Only way to play ball with Erdogan is to play hardball. Turning over our most advanced fighter jet while he buys Russian S400 & takes country in an anti-US direction would be a serious mistake.”
The F-35 rollout ceremony in Texas is scheduled for Thursday. Turkey does not immediately get to take the aircraft home, however. It will be stationed at an airbase in Arizona while Turkish pilots are trained to operate it.
The fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II is being developed and built for the U.S. military and allies in a project which, at around $400 billion, has been described as the most expensive U.S. weapons program ever.
Lockheed Martin calls it “the most lethal, survivable and connected fighter aircraft ever built,” citing its stealth technology, supersonic speed, sensors, weapons capacity, range, and “ability to collect, analyze and share data.”
Turkey, which plans to buy 100 F-35s, is also one of a handful of “program partners.” According to the manufacturers, “Turkish industries are eligible to become suppliers to the global F-35 fleet for the life of the program. In total, F-35 industrial opportunities for Turkish companies are expected to reach $12 billion.”
Colluding with the Russians
Turkey has been a NATO partner since the 1950s, but U.S. lawmakers have been increasingly troubled in recent years by Erdogan’s policies at home and abroad that are straining bilateral ties.
Erdogan, who has led Turkey since 2003, hopes to win another five-year term in early elections next week, armed with expanded powers that critics worry will only accelerate Turkey’s slide towards authoritarian rule.
Last year Ankara signed a deal to buy the Russian-made S-400s systems, which experts say boast acquisition radars capable of defeating modern stealth aircraft.
NATO pointed out the S-400s would not be compatible with alliance equipment. The decision also appeared to violate earlier NATO agreements to suspend military cooperation with Russia, and to address “existing dependencies on Russian-sourced legacy military equipment.”
Erdogan has shrugged off U.S. dismay about the purchase, and said in a recent television interview Turkey was discussing “joint production” with Russia of the even more advanced S-500 systems..
On the Senate floor last week, Shaheen expressed concern about the delivery of F-35s to Turkey, given Erdogan’s S-400 plans.
“The Turkish government claims to have purchased a Russian air defense system designed to shoot these very planes down,” she said. “NATO partners need these F-35s to counter Russian activity. We would be handing this technology over to the Kremlin if we granted Turkey these planes, and Congress will not stand for it.”
Last week, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said if the U.S. decides not to sell F-35s to Turkey, no-one could then tell Turkey not to buy aircraft elsewhere.
Also fueling the opposition to the F-35 transfers is the plight of Brunson, an evangelical pastor who lived and worked in Turkey with his family for more than 22 years before he was arrested in 2016.
He is accused of supporting a movement headed by Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based Turkish Muslim cleric accused by Erdogan of masterminding a failed coup attempt in 2016.
Prosecutors also accuse Brunson of supporting the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and of “dividing and separating the country by means of Christianization” of the Turkish people.
Erdogan last year hinted that Turkey could swap Brunson for Gulen – who he wants extradited – prompting charges in the U.S. that the pastor is essentially a hostage.
President Trump and senior members of his administration have urged Erdogan to release the pastor, to no avail. When his trial began last April, Trump said on Twitter Brunson was being “persecuted in Turkey for no reason.”
Shaheen and Tillis, along with Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), have led efforts in the Senate to press for Brunson’s release. Shaheen and Lankford are also pursuing sanctions against senior Turkish officials in the FY 2019 spending bill for State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs.
In a bipartisan letter last week, dozens of members of Congress urged Defense Secretary James Mattis to prevent the delivery of the F-35s to Turkey.