(Update: President Trump confirmed on Tuesday that, as Turkey has bought Russian’s S-400 missile defense system, it can no longer buy F-35 fighter planes from the United States. He blamed the Obama administration for not selling Turkey the U.S. Patriot missile defense system when the Turks wanted to buy it. Trump did not mention sanctions. Defense Secretary-nominee Mark Esper told senators earlier in the day that Turkey’s “acquisition of the S-400 fundamentally undermines the capability of the F-35.”)
(CNSNews.com) – As Russian military cargo planes laden with components of a missile defense system continue to land at an airbase near the Turkish capital – in defiance of U.S. appeals – President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Monday the S-400 system will be fully operational by next April.
“We have begun to receive our S-400s,” Erdogan told supporters in Ankara, noting that “some” had expressed disbelief in Turkey’s ability to secure the sophisticated missile defense system.
“The S-400 delivery is going to be completed in April 2020 and our new goal is to be joint production with Russia," Erdogan said. “The S-400s are the strongest defense system against those who want to attack our country.”
According to Turkey’s defense ministry, as of Monday afternoon, a total of nine Russian aircraft carrying S-400 components had arrived at a base near Ankara since Friday. Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said Turkish personnel have been training in both Turkey and Russia in installing and operating the system.
Erdogan signed the $2.5 billion deal for the system in April 2017. The Trump administration has long warned that if Turkey deploys the S-400s, it will have no choice but to impose sanctions on the NATO ally.
Republican and Democratic leaders in the U.S. House and Senate are now calling on the administration to do that, and to terminate Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program, which has already been suspended over the dispute.
Turkey, which plans to buy 100 of the advanced fighter aircraft, is also one of several “program partners” in the weapons program.
Versions of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act passed by the House and Senate include provisions barring Turkey from receiving the F-35 if it takes delivery of the Russian missile defense system.
(The White House has indicated President Trump would veto the House version as it stands now, although reasons given for its opposition do not include the Turkey provision.)
Turkey faces the threat of sanctions under a provision of the 2017 Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which seeks to punish those who enter into significant financial transactions with Russia’s military sector.
‘Built to shoot down aircraft like the F-35’
No other NATO member operates the Russian system. In a report to Congress, late last year, the administration said it had stressed to Turkey that buying the S-400s would have “unavoidable negative consequences for U.S.-Turkey bilateral relations, as well as Turkey’s role in NATO.”
Vice President Mike Pence, visiting Europe early this year, warned that the U.S. “will not stand idly by while NATO allies purchase weapons from our adversaries. We cannot ensure the defense of the West if our allies grow dependent on the East.”
“The S-400 is a Russian system built to shoot down aircraft like the F-35,” U.S. Army Gen. Mark Miley said in a written answer to questions by the Senate Armed Services Committee, ahead of a hearing Thursday on his nomination as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs Of Staff.
“If we allowed Turkey to receive and operate F-35s in close continuous proximity to the S-400, the S-400 radar system could provide the Russian military sensitive information on the F-35,” he added.
Miley told the committee that in his view, the U.S. should not continue with plans to transfer F-35s to Turkey if Turkey accepts delivery of the S-400s.
In a bid to avert a crisis, the U.S. offered late last year to sell Turkey Patriot missile defense systems to meet its defense requirements – an offer Turkey has not taken up.
After the Russian components began arriving on Friday, U.S. lawmakers reacted with dismay, and calls for action.
“That a NATO ally would choose to side with Russia and Vladimir Putin over the alliance and closer cooperation with the United States is hard to fathom,” House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and ranking member Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said in a joint statement.
They called for CAATSA sanctions and termination of Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program, as did the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees.
“By accepting delivery of the S-400 from Russia, President Erdogan has chosen a perilous partnership with Putin at the expense of Turkey’s security, economic prosperity and the integrity of the NATO alliance,” said Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.)
“It did not have to come to this. But unfortunately, President Erdogan rejected multiple attempts by the United States to preserve our strategic relationship while enabling Turkey to defend its airspace with F-35 aircraft and the Patriot air defense system.”
Turkey has denied that having the S-400s would pose a risk to NATO. Turkish media quoted Erdogan as saying on Sunday the S-400 deal was “the most important agreement” in Turkey’s history because under it Turkey would be a partner in production, not merely a customer.
Erdogan appears to have won the support of his main political rival, Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who said Sunday that “Turkey will do whatever is best for itself and will continue on its own path.”
Kilicdaroglu criticized U.S. lawmakers for trying to put pressure on Trump to “oppress” Turkey.