Trump Indicates F-35 Sales to Turkey May Be Off, But Adds ‘We’re Working Through It’

US President Donald Trump speaks with F-35 fighter plane pilot Lt Col Jason Curtis as he tours Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix, Arizona where he is for a "Make America Great" rally on October 19, 2018. (Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP) (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty

President Trump on Wednesday said Turkey is “now prohibited” from purchasing the Lockheed-Martim F-35 Joint Strike Fighter after it purchased and took receipt last week of a Russian weapons system meant to target such aircraft.

“Turkey has also ordered over a hundred F-35 planes — substantially over a hundred — and they have plans to order more. But because they have a system of missiles that’s made in Russia, they’re now prohibited from buying over a hundred planes. I would say that Lockheed isn’t exactly happy. That’s a lot of jobs,” Trump said Tuesday in the Cabinet Room.

However, he added, “We’re working through it.”

Turkey last week began receiving the Russian S-400, an anti-aircraft weapon system, despite the sale being heavily contested by the United States. U.S. officials argue that Turkey should not be allowed to purchase and co-produce parts of the F-35 if it also purchases and co-produces the S-400 with Russia — an adversary — on a system that can defeat the F-35.

Trump expressed regret over Turkey’s decision, saying that he had a “very good relationship” with Turkey. He also expressed some sympathy for Turkey, who he said purchased the Russian S-400 after the Obama administration refused to sell them Patriot missiles for defense.

“I’ve had a very good relationship. And, frankly, it’s a very complex situation. The Obama administration would not sell them the Patriot missiles. They need the Patriot missiles for defense. They would not sell them, under any circumstance,” he said.

He added:

Turkey tried very hard to buy them, and they wouldn’t sell them, and this went on for a long period of time. And it was as soon as they found out that they were going to have to buy the missiles — a comparable missile — not as good a missile, but a comparable, almost, missile from Russia, all of a sudden everybody started rushing and saying to Turkey, ‘Okay, we’ll sell you the Patriot missile.’ It was only when they found out they couldn’t get it, then, they say, ‘Let’s go, we’ll sell you the Patriot missile.’

But, by that time, Turkey had already signed and paid a lot of money to Russia for the missile system that they were not allowed to buy here, foolishly — because Turkey is a NATO member.

He noted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s help after he sought the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson, who was sentenced to 25 years in jail.

“I called President Erdogan, and I said, ‘Listen, he’s an innocent man. He’s a pastor. He’s a religious man. He’s not a spy. He’s not the things they said.’ And we had a couple of conversations, and I was able to get him back,” Trump said.

“So what happens is we have a situation where Turkey is very good with us. Very good. And we are now telling Turkey that, because you have really been forced to buy another missile system, we’re not going to sell you the F-35 fighter jets. It’s a very tough situation that they’re in. And it’s a very tough situation that we’ve been placed in — the United States,” Trump said.

“With all of that being said, we’re working through it. We’ll see what happens. But it’s not really fair.”

Michael Doran, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said he believes Erdogan is trying to create leverage over the U.S., which supports their enemy on their southern border, the Syrian Kurds.

“He wants leverage over us to make sure he gets the solution on his border that he needs, and he’s positioned Turkey now between Moscow and Washington and if we are too aggressive with him, we’ll push him to Moscow and we’ll live to regret it,” Doran said.

He said Turkey was to play a key role in the production of the F-35.

“This wasn’t just a weapons system. The Turks were in on the ground floor with the program, they were going to produce components for every plane to the tune of $3 million per plane, and in the lifetime of the program was going to build four- to five-thousand planes and were also going to provide maintenance for their own planes,” he said.

“They ordered about 100 of them and they were also going to buy maintenance for their own and for allies, so it was a huge component for the Air Force and their industrial defense industries.”

Doran said the administration has little choice but to expel Turkey from the F-35 program but urged a moderated response.

“They can’t have the state-of-the-art Russian weapon designed to topple the stealth aircraft, and stealth aircraft,” he said. “But the thing is to hit them with targeted sanctions…the trick is to be strong enough to send a message to everybody that’s lining up to the get the S-400s that we won’t allow it, but not so strong that we alienate not just Erdogan, but the youth of the country.”

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies Founder and President Cliff May disagreed.

“I think if Turkey is buying this anti-missile system from Russians that is problematic and it has to have an impact on our relations. At this point, I think we have been very clear about that, and I think we cannot compromise our security by sharing the kids of technology that we would have if they were not moving into alliance with Russia,” he said.

“Whatever the reasons for that, it’s a problem,” he said. “You cannot look at Turkey and say it’s a reliable NATO member.”

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