NATO commander nominee: Turkey 'should not get the F-35' if it buys Russian defense system

The nominee to take command of NATO forces and U.S. forces in Europe on Tuesday said he believes NATO ally Turkey should not get F-35 fighter jets from the U.S. if it follows through with buying a Russian defense system.

Gen. Tod Wolters’s comments to the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing to be commander of U.S. European Command and supreme allied commander of NATO are the latest in an escalating rift over Ankara’s deal to buy a Russian S-400 long-range air defense system.

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“I concur with this committee’s belief that the S-400 and the F-35 are not compatible, and if Turkey proceeds down a path to procure and operate the S-400, they should not get the F-35,” said Wolters, who is currently the commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Africa.

Wolters’s comments come a day after the Pentagon announced it was suspending deliveries and activities related to Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program, ramping up the pressure on Ankara to reverse course.

U.S. officials are worried about the F-35, the United States’ most advanced aircraft, operating in close proximity with the S-400 and allowing the Russians to gather information about U.S. capabilities.

The United States and other NATO allies have also warned the S-400 system will not work with NATO defense systems.

“The system itself, the S-400, is incompatible for a standpoint because it speaks a different language than NATO English, and it certainly is not interoperable,” Wolters said Tuesday.

The Trump administration has been trying to convince Turkey to buy the U.S.-made Patriot anti-missile system instead, offering Ankara a discount.

But Turkish officials have remained defiant, saying they will not renege on their deal with the Russians.

If confirmed, Wolters would succeed Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, who himself told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month he would recommend the United States not deliver the F-35 to Turkey if it buys the S-400.

The Pentagon’s announcement comes the same week NATO is celebrating its 70th anniversary, and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu will be among the attendees at the State Department to mark the occasion. 

“I would contend that we all understand that Turkey is an important ally in the region, but it’s absolutely unsustainable to support co-location of an F-35 and S-400,” Wolters said.