WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary James Mattis has asked Congress not to block delivery of F-35 fighters destined for Turkey, a step the House and Senate have — at least for the moment — enshrined in the 2019 defense bill now being finalized.
The Senate version of the defense bill, which is part of House-Senate negotiations, would place a hold on F-35s purchased by Turkey but not yet delivered. Some members of Congress are concerned over Turkey’s planned acquisition of Russia’s next-generation anti-missile S-400 system, a deal that has raised issues of making NATO systems vulnerable.
Lawmakers also are infuriated about Turkey detaining U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson.
Mattis brushed aside those concerns.
“At this time, I oppose removal of Turkey from the F-35,” Mattis wrote to members of the two armed services committees. The letter was written earlier in July but just released on Friday.
Turkey plans to buy about 100 F-35s, joining the U.K. and Australia atop foreign buyers. At least 10 Turkish companies are building parts and components for the fighter, which is anchored by Lockheed.
Turkey’s capital Ankara is also one of the original eight international partners for the F-35, which was envisioned as a fighter that would make a profit by internationals sales. Turkey has invested $1.25 billion in the aircraft’s development phase, according to various news reports.
Other sales have moved forward. British officials said they expect to have nine F-35s in place by the end of the year, and are projected to have 48 by 2025. British pilots are currently in the U.S. training for the fighters.
Despite unaddressed Congressional concerns, Turkey received its first F-35 delivery at a ceremony in Forth Worth, Texas, on June 21. Its pilots and maintainers are at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona for training.
“If the Turkish supply chain was disrupted today, it would result in an aircraft production break, delaying delivery of 50-75 jets and would take approximately 18-24 months to re-source party,” Mattis wrote.
Trying to thwart Turkey’s purchase of the S-400, the State Department is attempting to woo Ankara to instead buy the Raytheon MIM-104 Patriot, Tina Kaidanow, acting assistant secretary for political-military affairs, told reporters last week in a press conference call.
Meanwhile, the U.S. may soon face a similar issue with another ally in the same region. According to the Tass news agency, Qatar is in discussions to purchase the S-400. Qatar and Russia have already inked a deal for Moscow to send Doha items such as Kalashnikov assault rifles and anti-tank weapons.