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Mar 21 2019

U.S. may freeze delivery of F-35s to Turkey - officials

U.S. officials have acknowledged that Washington could soon halt ongoing preparations to deliver F-35 fighter jets to Turkey, in what would be the United States’ strongest signal yet of its opposition to Ankara’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system, Reuters reported on Thursday.

For weeks, top U.S. officials have warned Turkey that its purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defence system, which could compromise U.S. military technologies, would likely result in Washington halting delivery of its F-35 fighter jets and the placement of sanctions against Turkey. Just this week, U.S. Senators urged the State Department to place sanctions on countries, including Turkey, that purchase the S-400 system.

Ankara has continued to reassert its commitment to the agreement with Moscow, repeatedly calling it a “done deal”. 

“The United States is nearing an inflection point in a years-long standoff with Turkey, a NATO ally, after so far failing to sway President Tayyip Erdoğan that buying a Russian air defense system would compromise the security of F-35 aircraft,” said Reuters.

“The S-400 is a computer. The F-35 is a computer. You don’t hook your computer to your adversary’s computer and that’s basically what we would be doing,” Katie Wheelbarger, acting assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, told Reuters.

No decision has been made, but U.S. officials confirmed that Washington was considering halting steps now underway to ready Turkey to receive the F-35,

“There’s a lot of things in train that can be paused to send signals to them (that we’re serious),” said Wheelbarger.

If Turkey was removed from the F-35 program, it would be the most serious crisis in the relationship between the two allies in decades, according to Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The strains on ties between Washington and Ankara already include strategy in Syria, Iran sanctions and the detention of U.S. consular staff. “This is really a symptom, not a cause of the problem between the two countries,” Aliriza said.

Many U.S. officials worry Turkey is drifting away from NATO and watch improving relations between Ankara and Moscow with concern, according to Reuters, adding that the prospect of Russian contractors or officials on Turkish bases that also are home to the F-35 is unfathomable to many U.S. officials.

Washington has sought to persuade Turkey to purchase American-made Patriot missiles system, instead of the S-400s. Turkish officials have said Patriots are not an acceptable alternative, though they may be open to buying both.

Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon told Reuters that in addition to the Patriot air defense system, the American offer “includes significant government-to-government cooperation on advanced system development”.