Don't sell F-35s to Turkey, warns top U.S. general in Europe

The top U.S. general in Europe advised U.S. senators at a Senate Armed Services Committee meeting on Tuesday to cancel the delivery of new generation F-35 fighter jets to Turkey if Ankara goes ahead with its planned purchase of Russian S-400 missile.

“My best military advice would be that we don’t follow through with the F-35, flying it or working with an ally that’s working with Russian systems, particularly air defence systems with one of our … most advanced technological capabilities,” said General Curtis Scaparrotti, the head of U.S. forces in Europe and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe.

Answering a question put to him by Jeanne Shaheen, a U.S. senator who has spearheaded efforts to block the transfer of F-35s to Turkey, Scaparrotti said Ankara’s purchase of the Russian systems would harm Turkey’s defence interoperability with NATO and U.S. systems, particularly when it came to the F-35 jet.

“This is a huge decision for Turkey,” Scaparrotti said, adding that he and other senior U.S. commanders had been in “continuous” talks with Turkey over the S-400 systems, which he said could also clash with other important systems supplied by the United States besides the F-35.

“I would hope that they would reconsider this one decision on the S-400 – one system that would potentially forfeit many of the other systems and one of the most important systems (F-35s) that we provide them,” he said.

Turkey and Russia finalised an agreement worth a reported $2.5 billion on the sale of the Russian missile defence systems in December 2017.

Since then Ankara has refused attempts by its western allies to dissuade it from the deal, including an offer by the United States to supply it with Patriot missile defence systems.

Calls to block the delivery of F-35 jets to Turkey if it goes ahead with the S-400 purchase have gained bipartisan support in the United States, despite concerns that suspending Turkey from the F-35 programme could cause production delays.

Several components in the fighter jet are currently produced by Turkish companies.

“I do not understand under any circumstances why on earth they (Ankara) would be considering purchasing a missile defence system that would not be interoperable, that would require deployment capabilities on the ground in Turkey that would threaten the presence of our joint strike fighter. Why on earth they would be considering a decision that would make us have to rethink whether or not they can actually be in the supply chain for the joint strike fighter,” Senator Thom Tillis said during Tuesday’s committee meeting.

Congress had been well briefed about the situation concerning the S-400 sale last year, said Tillis, noting that it was one of a number of issues that were highlighted during Ankara’s diplomatic feud with Washington over the imprisonment in Turkey of U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson on terror charges.

Tillis warned the Turkish government not to threaten U.S.-Turkish cooperation with its decision to purchase the Russian systems, which he said would put “congress in a position where we have to act.”

Pentagon Spokesperson Eric Pahon warned of the “grave consequences” the S-400 purchase would have for Turkey’s relationship with the United States on Monday.

On the same day, a U.S. delegation including Matthew Palmer, a deputy assistant secretary overseeing relations with Turkey at the State Department, arrived in Turkey for talks.

“We have a team there today talking to the Turks, and I’m sure that a very candid conversation about the S-400 and the potential consequences are a part of that conversation,” Scaparrotti said at Tuesday’s meeting.

The delegation also includes James Jeffrey, the U.S. special envoy for the coalition against the Islamic State, who will discuss with his Turkish counterparts plans for Syria after the proposed withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Updated to correct an error. On first publication Pentagon spokesperson Eric Pahon's name was given as Alan Pahon.