US senators have demanded to permanently remove Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program. This is in retaliation for Ankara’s cooperation with Russia and not submitting to demands made by Washington. Republican Senators James Lankford and Thom Tillis, as well as Democratic Party Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Chris Van Hollen, sent a letter to US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper demanding that Turkey be completely excluded from the program to build fifth generation F-35 fighter jets.
The US lawmakers asked the Pentagon for an explanation of Turkey’s involvement in the production of these fighter jets. The letter highlighted that Turkey continues to manufacture and supply key parts of the F-35 despite being banned from participating in it.
“Based on recent revelations, it is clear that the Pentagon is not following its own timeline or the intent of Congress in this matter,” the letter by the senators said. “We encourage you to reexamine the present approach and take action to ensure an expedited removal of Turkey from the manufacturing line as required by law.”
Washington announced that it could exclude Turkey from the F-35 program after Ankara acquired the Russian S-400 air defence systems. Turkey made the purchase despite Washington’s warnings that there will be repercussions for buying a system that they say is not compatible with NATO doctrine. Consequently, Washington did not deliver the F-35’s that Turkey paid for.
In turn, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan demanded that the money paid by Turkey to be returned if the jets are not delivered. Meanwhile, the US Air Force has already begun the process of appropriating the fighters that were built for Turkey.
The US Senate, especially the Democrats, wants to minimise President Donald Trump’s business opportunities and dealings with Erdoğan. With the worsening of relations with the US’ main allies in the Middle East, full transparency in Ankara’s policy is being demanded. Erdoğan however continues to act unilaterally to serve his country’s own interests independent of what is wanted by Washington and NATO. Therefore, the American senators are trying to increase the stakes, but it is unlikely that this pressure will lead anywhere.
Trump is not yet ready to pull Turkey out of the F-35 project. Although Turkey’s role in the program was not very great, it was implemented in several important segments. The US have not yet substituted Turkey’s role in the manufacture of the F-35 and Trump is unwilling to find a substitute. This is especially true since Trump’s and Erdoğan’s close relations were well documented by John Bolton in his newly released book. The relations are so close in fact that Bolton described it as a “bromance.”
Halkbank is a Turkish state-owned bank that has been under investigation by US prosecutors since 2018 as it allegedly transferred $20 billion worth of Iranian oil revenue to Tehran. According to Bolton, Trump instructed the bank to be cleared of charges that it breached US sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
Bolton wrote: “Trump then told Erdogan he would take care of things, explaining that the [New York] southern district prosecutors were not his people but were Obama people, a problem that would be fixed when they were replaced by his people.”
Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, a member of the Senate’s finance committee, said that Bolton’s allegations provided “damning evidence” that “Donald Trump attempted to interfere in a criminal investigation into the largest sanctions violations scheme in US history as a favour” to Erdoğan.
If Bolton’s allegations are proven true by the US prosecutor’s investigation, then it demonstrates that Trump is willing to tolerate Turkey breaking sanctions that the American president himself imposed against Iran.
Although the US Senate may be pushing to ‘punish’ Turkey for its cooperation with Russia in Syria and acquiring the S-400, it is unlikely Trump will bow to pressure and will continue to indirectly serve his business interests in Turkey that include the Trump Tower’s in the upmarket Şişli district of Istanbul, the first of Trump’s buildings on the European continent.
According to Turkish media reports, Turkey deployed the S-400 at the Murted air base near Ankara on Tuesday and tested it on US-made F-16 Viper and F-4 Phantom II fighters. The US has expressed its fear that if Turkey acquires the F-35 and tests it on the S-400, Russia can gain valuable information and knowledge about the fifth-generation fighter jet that many experts claim can evade S-400 technology.
It is likely that Turkey’s deployment of the S-400 for tests against US-made jets prompted the US senators to state in the letter that “From human rights violations in Syria to arbitrary arrests of Americans in Ankara to defence cooperation with Russia, Turkey is not behaving like a responsible actor or working collaboratively with the West at the level we expect from a NATO ally.”
The Senators continued: “The legislation passed by Congress and signed into law by President Trump sent a clear diplomatic message to Turkey about the consequences of moving forward with Russian defence systems and technology. Unfortunately, that strong message is being undermined by the Department’s repeated delays in removing Turkey from the supply chain. By keeping Turkish manufacturers in the supply chain two years after the initial statute took effect and well beyond the Pentagon’s self-imposed deadline, the Department is impeding our nation’s diplomatic and geopolitical efforts to pressure Turkey to reverse course.”
It is likely that Trump will ignore the demands made by the US Senators, but it does demonstrate that there is growing discontent with Turkey in Washington. None-the-less, Turkey will continue to act unilaterally knowing there will be minimum repercussions so long as Trump is in power.