Fighter Sale to Turkey Could Pit Trump Against Congress
A battle is brewing over the transfer of F-35 fighter jets.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are threatening to block Turkey from obtaining its promised fleet of 100 F-35 fighter jets over Ankara’s human rights violations and planned purchase of a controversial Russian air defense system. But it’s not clear that President Donald Trump’s administration will back them up.
Turkey, the third-largest planned operator of the F-35 after the United States and United Kingdom, just received its first aircraft during a June 21 rollout ceremony at Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth, Texas, facility. But members of U.S. Congress are pushing to prevent the planned transfer of those jets across the Atlantic to Turkey next summer, after pilot training wraps up, and to kick Ankara out of the nine-nation F-35 consortium altogether.
The row underscores how tense U.S.-Turkey relations have become in recent years. The NATO allies have clashed in recent months over Turkish expansion of its campaign in Syria and U.S. support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units militia, as well as Turkey’s detention of an American pastor and deepening ties with Russia. The international community has also widely condemned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s purge of military officials and civil servants after a 2016 coup attempt.
Caught in the middle of the tense bilateral relations is the United States’ flagship fighter jet.
“We’re talking about an aircraft here, but what we’re really talking about is whether Turkey can’t be trusted with America’s frontline fighter, particularly if they are buying Russian systems,” said Aaron Stein, an expert on Turkey with the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. The debate over the F-35 is “actually about what this alliance is all about.”
In particular, lawmakers and top U.S. brass have warned against Turkey’s planned purchase of the sophisticated Russian-built S-400 missile system. Officials say integration of the S-400 with the F-35 and NATO air defenses could compromise closely guarded military secrets.
“Most of the leaders I dealt with in Turkey are in prison right now,” said retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Tome Walters, who served as director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency from 2000 to 2004. “The assumption was, these are our allies and they will be our allies forever, but now we have Erdogan and we have the Russian S-400, so do we want the F-35 in an authoritarian Turkey?
“How do we, the U.S. government, know for an absolute certainty that some of the technology in the F-35 isn’t going to get compromised or get stolen one way or another inside Turkey?”
Other experts say Congress is using the F-35 to crank up pressure on Turkey for the release of Andrew Brunson, the American pastor who has been detained in Turkey for more than a year and a half.
“What is really driving this congressional action is frustration with the continued detainment of Pastor Brunson,” said Amanda Sloat, a former senior State Department official who worked on relations with Turkey.
But it may not be in Washington’s interest to pick a fight with Ankara right now. Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey is a critical launching pad for operations in the Middle East, particularly the campaign against the Islamic State, and also home to a U.S. stockpile of B61 nuclear bombs, a linchpin of U.S. nuclear deterrence in Europe.
And Ankara is a crucial partner on the F-35 program — several key components of the jet are manufactured by Turkish companies, while the main European hub for the F-35’s Rolls-Royce engine repair and overhaul is in Eskisehir in northwestern Turkey. The Defense Department estimates it will take two years to find and qualify new suppliers to replace any Turkish companies that are kicked out of the program, according to one congressional source.
“The problem with trying to remove Turkey from the program is that European defense preparations assume a Turkish role,” said Loren Thompson, an analyst with the Lexington Institute, a think tank that receives funding from Lockheed Martin, among other defense contractors. “Not only are they the lead country for supporting the fighter’s engines, but they anchor the southern flank of NATO air power.”
Meanwhile, Trump has made boosting U.S. arms sales to allies a priority. As part of its broader Buy American policy, the Trump administration recently unveiled a series of changes to export rules making it easier for U.S. allies to obtain a variety of weapons systems, particularly drones. Cutting Turkey off from the United States’ premier fighter jet may set a worrying precedent for other allies that rely on U.S. military technology.
Congress can make it significantly more difficult for Turkey to get its F-35s, said Joel Johnson of the Teal Group consulting firm, but the administration has no intention of blocking the sale.
“There is a struggle between the Congress and the Trump administration, [and] the Trump people seem to be much less worried about the Russians than the Congress is,” Johnson said. “If I were a betting man, I would bet that the Turks will get their F-35s. But that isn’t to say there won’t be some political blood on the floor between now and then.”
Congress lacks the authority to unilaterally block Ankara’s participation in the F-35 program, because the sales to partner nations are made through the F-35 consortium, not the U.S. government. Congress is not notified of individual sales or transfers to partner nations, in contrast to the normal foreign military sales process, according to the congressional source.
Knowing this, Congress is attempting to indirectly prevent Turkey from obtaining the sophisticated jet by blocking the transfer of the F-35s and associated technical data to Turkey during the small window when the U.S. government has custody of the jets — from the moment they come off the production line until they are transferred to the partner nation. Final transfer normally occurs after the process of partner training is complete, a one- to two-year process, Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. Mike Andrews said.
Both Senate authorizers and appropriators are pushing that approach through language in their respective bills.
“It’s quite messy. The story is hard to tell, because nobody actually knows how all this of this will unfold, because it’s so legally tenuous,” said Stein, the Atlantic Council expert.
Whether Congress can ultimately legislate against the sale is up in the air. If the language makes it into the final version of the bill, it will be “a question for the lawyers,” said one congressional staffer, but the intent is to make a policy statement.
“It would be tough for the [Defense] Department to not do something if Congress comes out hanging it on some very thin legal detail,” the staffer said. “Even if it does get stripped out, the feeling and the argument will remain.”
Adding another layer of complexity, Turkey’s F-35s could get ensnared in U.S. sanctions on Russia. In 2017, Congress overwhelmingly passed a law that would slap sanctions on countries buying from Russia’s energy and defense sectors, which could apply to Turkey’s upcoming S-400 purchase.
“Turkey will likely be the first test case of how those sanctions are applied because of the purchase of the F-35,” Stein said.
In fact, a separate provision in the Senate’s version of the defense policy bill urges the president to impose sanctions against any country that purchases the S-400 from Moscow. But the possibility of sanctions against Turkey is remote, said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group.
“Turkey is just too big as a key NATO power, geographically it’s in an extremely important position, and on top of that, hey, it’s a huge economy,” Aboulafia said.
The administration is already pushing back on the Senate language. Defense Secretary James Mattis is reportedly trying to quash the proposal, preferring to work the Turkey issue through the Defense or State Department, rather than legislative channels.
The administration is “working on negotiating a way out for Turkey, not to get them out of the F-35 program but to get them out of S-400, and they believe that Congress is getting in the way,” according to the congressional source.
The Pentagon for now appears to be hedging, warning that the S-400 could result in sanctions and other measures limiting defense cooperation.
“The U.S. government has not made a determination on Turkey’s future participation in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program,” Andrews said.
Lara Seligman is Foreign Policy's Pentagon correspondent. @laraseligman