U.S. kicks NATO ally Turkey out of fighter jet program for buying Russian defence system

In a significant break with a longtime NATO ally, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump said Turkey can no longer be part of a U.S.-led fighter aircraft program because it is buying a Russian air defence system that would aid Russian intelligence.

White House says Russian system 'will be used to learn about' stealth aircraft

The White House said Turkey can no longer be part of the U.S. F-35 fighter jet program over the country's decision to buy the Russian S-400 air defence system. (Kang Jong-min/Newsis via Associated Press)

In a significant break with a longtime NATO ally, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump said Turkey can no longer be part of a U.S.-led fighter aircraft program because it is buying a Russian air defence system that would aid Russian intelligence.

The decision has significant implications for the cohesion of NATO, whose central strategic purpose is to defend against Russian aggression. Now that NATO member Turkey has chosen to buy and deploy the Russian-made S-400 air defence, it will no longer be fully part of the alliance's air defences, which are at the core of NATO strategy.

The U.S. government's concern is that the S-400 could be used to gather data on the capabilities of the F-35, and that the information could end up in Russian hands.

In a written statement released Wednesday, the White House said that Turkey's decision to buy the Russian S-400 air defence 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 White House statement said, referring to the S-400 air defence system as a means for Russia to probe U.S. capabilities.

Pentagon officials sought to downplay the rift, noting that Turkey has been a key ally for more than six decades.

"The U.S. still values our strategic partnership with Turkey," said Ellen Lord, the Pentagon's chief weapons buyer, who told a news conference that the U.S. has suspended Turkey from the F-35 program and is beginning the process of its formal removal. Lord said Turkey stands to lose $9 billion US in future earnings as an F-35 parts supplier.

The White House did not say explicitly that Turkey will be kicked out of the F-35 program, but the Pentagon did.

Lord said the process of fully removing Turkey is under way and should be completed by March 31. She refused to say whether the decision could be reversed.

Drift from West 'disheartening' 

David Trachtenberg, the deputy undersecretary of defence for policy, told reporters the U.S.-Turkey military partnership "remains very strong," and U.S. and Turkish forces will continue to exercise together. He declined to explain how Turkey can remain a full partner in NATO's integrated air defence while using a weapon system built by NATO's chief adversary.

It's clear, however, that senior U.S. officials worry about the future of the relationship with Turkey. Army Secretary Mark Esper, Trump's nominee to be the next Secretary of Defense, told his Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday that it is "very disheartening to see how they have drifted over the past several years" away from the West.

Although it is never publicly acknowledged by the U.S. government, the Pentagon stores nuclear weapons at Turkey's Incirlik air base. Some national security experts question the wisdom of continuing that arrangement, given Turkey's drift.

Earlier this week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his government hopes to co-produce high-tech weaponry systems with Russia in the future, further defying the United States and other NATO allies. Turkey refused to bow to U.S. pressure, saying its Russia deal is a matter of national sovereignty and that the agreement could not be cancelled.

A Russian military cargo plane, carrying the S-400 missile defence system, is unloaded after landing at a military airbase, in Ankara. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

Turkey makes more than 900 components for the stealth aircraft, which is sold internationally. Removing it as a supplier means the Pentagon is lining up alternative manufacturers for those parts. Lord said many of those alternatives will be American suppliers, and that the Pentagon is spending between $500 million and $600 million US "to shift the supply chain."

Congress appears generally supportive of the administration's moves against Turkey. "America simply cannot send its most advanced military technology to countries where adversaries like Russia will have access to it," said Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican who sits on the Armed Services Committee.

Trump announced on Tuesday that the S-400 purchase means Turkey will not be allowed to purchase any F-35 planes. Yet to be announced is whether the U.S. will impose economic sanctions on Turkey for its decision.

The break with Turkey over its purchase of a Russian weapon system is symptomatic of a deeper division between Ankara and its Western allies and partners.

Turkey has complained that it was not given favourable terms to buy the U.S. alternative to the Russian S-400 air defence system. The White House, however, said in its statement Wednesday that Turkey had plenty of chances to buy the U.S. Patriot system.

"This administration has made multiple offers to move Turkey to the front of the line to receive the U.S. Patriot air defence system," it said.