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U.S. Stops F-35 Parts Delivery After Turkey Decides To Buy Russian Missile System


The United States says it is time for Turkey to choose - choose between America and Russia. Turkey is a NATO ally. It's buying a vital U.S. weapon system - the F-35 stealth jet fighter. And by purchasing some of those planes - two of them to be exact - Turkey helps to cover the enormous cost of development. But Turkey also plans to buy missiles from Russia. And the U.S. now says, drop the Russian purchase or lose the U.S. planes. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: At Luke Air Force Base just outside Phoenix, a jet engine blasts the world's most advanced stealth fighter and its pilot up into the sky. It's one of 84 F-35s at Luke. Two of them have the flag of Turkey painted on their tails. They're the only F-35s here I'm not allowed to photograph. Sean Clements is Luke's chief of media relations. He says from the highest levels of the Pentagon, the order is no pictures of these two fighter jets, no interviews with the Turkish pilots training here.

SEAN CLEMENTS: The decision was made not for this instance specifically but just a blanket across the board that Turkey doesn't do interviews. They don't do media opportunities.

WELNA: They don't have their plane photographed.

CLEMENTS: Exactly.

WELNA: And yet, nine months ago, these two war planes were unveiled with great fanfare by Lockheed Martin, which manufactures the F-35.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Turkish).

WELNA: Turkey's national anthem opened the ceremony in Fort Worth, Texas. Lockheed's CEO Marillyn Hewson then symbolically delivered the first two of the hundred F-35s that Turkey plans to buy.


MARILLYN HEWSON: At Lockheed Martin, our hope is that the F-35 will continue to strengthen the mission and values of NATO, our relationship with Turkey and the cause of peace in the region and around the world.

WELNA: But Turkey has yet to take actual custody of these two planes, which cost $100 million apiece. American pilots flew them to Luke, where the Turkish pilots have been training. But it's not clear those planes will ever reach Turkey. That's because Turkey's also buying Russia's advanced S-400 air defense missile system. Here's the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Joe Dunford, last month, warning that Turkey should not do that.


JOE DUNFORD: I think both the executive branch of our government, the legislative branch of our government are 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.

WELNA: Pentagon officials say Russia's installing the S-400 in Turkey could give Moscow easy access to the stealth fighter's secrets. NATO's Supreme Allied Commander General Curtis Scaparrotti recently told Congress that if Turkey does acquire Russia's S-400 system...


CURTIS SCAPARROTTI: My best military advice would be that we don't then follow through with the F-35, flying it or working with an ally that's working with Russian systems, particularly air defense systems.

WELNA: But denying Turkey the F-35 is not so simple. Turkey's part of a nine-nation consortium building the jet fighter. And it makes hundreds of its components. That's why Loren Thompson, an arms expert whose Lexington Institute receives funding from Lockheed Martin, doubts Turkey will get kicked out.

LOREN THOMPSON: Turkey was on board the F-35 program from day one. And therefore, all of the program plans assume that it will continue to play its role going forward in the construction and the support of the aircraft.

WELNA: Excluding Turkey from the F-35 is clearly not what American officials would like to do. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan was categorical at a House Armed Services Committee hearing last week when asked about that by Ohio Republican Michael Turner.


MICHAEL TURNER: Do we want Turkey in the F-35 program?

PATRICK SHANAHAN: We absolutely do. We need Turkey to buy the Patriot.

WELNA: Shanahan was referring to the Patriot missile defense system, which the U.S. offered to sell to Turkey earlier this year as an alternative to the Russian system. That sale is conditioned, though, on Turkey abandoning plans to install the S-400. So far, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is showing no signs of backing down.



WELNA: In an interview last week on Turkish TV, Erdogan said Turkey's already made its move on the S-400. And there's no turning back. In his words, nobody should ask us to lick up what we spat.

ASLI AYDINTASBAS: This is a very rocky relationship.

WELNA: That's Istanbul-based Asli Aydintasbas. She's a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. And she says via Skype that while campaigning for local elections, Erdogan has showcased his defiance in this standoff.

AYDINTASBAS: Each and every rally he brings up S-400s saying, we're going to buy it. They told me not to buy it, almost making it look like it's a sign of his virile (ph) - his independence, his power on the world stage, etc., that he could say no to United States.

WELNA: Erdogan, says former U.S. ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman, is betting the Trump administration will blink.

ERIC EDELMAN: I think he might very well gamble that the United States would not actually kick Turkey out of the F-35 program because they are a partner in it. And there will be some definite costs to the United States, both in financial terms and in terms of the program.

WELNA: Turkey's acquisition of the Russian air defense system could also trigger U.S. sanctions. Brian Egan was the National Security Council legal adviser during the Obama administration. What's on the line here, he says, is Washington's credibility.

BRIAN EGAN: This seems to be squarely within the scope of what these sanctions were intended to address. And it does seem like a test case that others will be watching.

WELNA: For the U.S., a lot more's at stake than the $12 billion worth of F-35s that Turkey plans to buy. American warplanes use Turkish bases to fly into neighboring Syria. U.S. nuclear warheads are known to be stockpiled in Turkey.

JAMES STAVRIDIS: There are bad choices on both sides here, both for the U.S. and for Turkey.

WELNA: Retired Admiral James Stavridis is a former NATO supreme allied commander. Something, he says, will have to give.

STAVRIDIS: So far, neither side is blinking. Let's hope the two sides can come together and hammer out some kind of a compromise that does not end up with S-400 missiles attached to NATO air defenses because that would compromise NATO air defenses.

WELNA: A bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation last week prohibiting any transfer of F-35s to Turkey unless the Trump administration certifies Turkey won't be getting the S-400. But Turkish officials say that Russian missile defense system will be installed in July, risking the fate not just of Turkey's two F-35s at that Luke and dozens more on order but its standing as a trusted NATO ally as well.

David Welna, NPR News, Luke Air Force Base, Ariz.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAVES OF STEEL'S "MAGIC SMOKE OUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: April 2, 2019 at 12:00 AM EDT
In an earlier version of this report, we mistakenly said that an F-35 has two engines. In fact, it has one.
David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.