Joint Chiefs chair warns of tough decision ahead with F-35 delivery to Turkey

Joint Chiefs chair warns of tough decision ahead with F-35 delivery to Turkey
© Camille Fine

Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday the United States will “have a hard time reconciling” the delivery of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey if the NATO ally moves ahead with its purchase of a Russian-made air defense system.

Reuters first reported Thursday that U.S. officials were considering freezing preparations for delivering F-35 aircraft to Turkey should the country buy Russia’s S-400 long-range air defense system.

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Dunford, who sidestepped a question on whether he supported the United States halting the F-35 delivery, said he hoped the two countries can work through the issue.

“The S-400 is a tough issue. ... I think both the executive branch of our government, the legislative branch of our government, they’re going to have a hard time reconciling the presence of the S-400 and the most advanced fighter aircraft that we have, the F-35,” Dunford told attendees at an Atlantic Council event.

“Our position has been made very clear to Turkey, and we’re hopeful that we can find a way through this, but it’s a tough issue.”

Turkey is a partner in making the F-35 and parts of the jet are built in the country, with an engine overhaul depot in the city of Eskisehir.

Ankara is supposed to eventually get 116 of the fifth-generation fighter jets, but U.S. officials have expressed concerns that the S-400 could be used to gather information on the advanced aircraft.

“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.

The Reuters report also noted that Pentagon officials were looking at alternatives to Turkey’s engine depot.

A Pentagon spokesman earlier this month warned that should Turkey move ahead with its S-400 purchase, “there would be grave consequences in terms of our military relationship with them.”

And Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, head of U.S. European Command, told Congress that he would recommend that the United States not “follow through with the F-35, flying it or working with an ally that’s working with Russian systems.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, however, has said the country has already reached an agreement with the Russians and that the S-400 “is a done deal, there can be no turning back.”

Dunford stressed Thursday that Turkey is still a U.S. ally, “and we have many more areas of convergence than divergence.”

“As we look at five, 10 years down the road, I want to make very sure that our Turkish allies are close to us and I work that relationship very hard,” Dunford added.