US officially kicks Turkey out of F-35 fighter jet program

US officially kicks Turkey out of F-35 fighter jet program
© Getty Images

The U.S. government on Wednesday officially removed Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program, a move that came after the NATO ally last week took delivery of a Russian missile defense system, against Washington’s wishes.

“The U.S. and other F-35 partners are aligned in this decision to suspend Turkey from the program and initiate the process to formally remove Turkey from the program,” Ellen Lord, the under secretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, told reporters at the Pentagon.

ADVERTISEMENT

The White House also released a statement on Wednesday that said Turkey’s decision to purchase the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile defense system “renders its continued involvement with the F-35 impossible.”

“The F-35 cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities,” the statement said.

“Turkey has been a longstanding and trusted partner and NATO Ally for over 65 years, but . . . This will have detrimental impacts on Turkish interoperability with the Alliance.”

The administration has long threatened it would pull Turkey from the F-35 program if it took delivery of the S-400, which Ankara did on Friday.

U.S. officials fear that the Russian system, if used alongside the F-35, will allow a back door into the advanced aircrafts' closely guarded stealth information.

“Turkey cannot field a Russian intelligence collection platform in proximity to where the F-35 program makes repairs, and houses the F-35,” Lord said.

“Much of the F-35′s strength lies in its stealth capabilities, so the ability to detect those capabilities would jeopardize the long-term security of the F-35 program. We seek only to protect the long-term security of the F-35 program.”

The decision has major implications for Turkey, which was on track to buy 100 of the F-35A and was one of nine partner countries involved in making and maintaining the advanced fighter jet. The nation makes about 900 parts for the aircraft.

Lord said that the Pentagon will now move F-35 production and maintenance roles from Turkey and split the tasks among other partner nations, but stressed that it will have a “minimal impact” on the larger F-35 program.

She said that will cost the United States “between $500 and $600 million in non-recurring engineering in order to shift the supply chain,” but that Turkey’s economy will take a $9 billion hit over the life of the program.

She added that Turkey’s industrial participation in the program will be “unwound,” by March.  

Also in question are the four F-35s in Turkey’s order, which Turkey technically owns. The first of the jets were unveiled in a June 2018 delivery ceremony, but the United States has so far kept them stateside.

Asked whether Washington will reimburse Ankara for the four jets it cannot take delivery of, Lord replied that officials are “discussing the specifics about the aircraft they have purchased so far, as we speak.”

Turkish personnel that were being trained to fly and fix the F-35 also must leave the United States by the end of the month.

Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy David Trachtenberg, who spoke alongside Lord, repeatedly stressed that the relationship between Washington, Ankara and the alliance will be able to continue even though Turkey will no longer be able to participate in the integrated air defense of NATO.

Asked whether that would weaken the alliance, he deferred.

“I don’t want to speculate in terms of what’s going to happen with respect to NATO’s weakening or strengthening. My only point was that the decisions we were taking here are intended to strengthen the partners and our capabilities in an alliance context,” he said.

He also deferred on questions raised on whether the United States has made alternative plans for its operations in Syria and Iraq, as F-35 jets sometimes fly in Turkish airspace to carry out operations.

“I won’t talk about the Syria and Iraq piece of this,” he said.

In response to the decision, F-35-maker Lockheed Martin said in a statement that it was a “government-to-government matter,” and that it is following official U.S. guidance.

“Lockheed Martin has been partnering closely with the U.S. Government and our supply chain to minimize impact to the F-35 program,” the statement said. “Over the last several months we’ve been working to establish alternative sources of supply in the United States to quickly accommodate Turkey’s current contributions to the program. These actions will limit any future production or sustainment impact and we remain on track to meet our commitment of delivering 131 F-35s this year.”

—Updated at 6:03 p.m.