General Tapped to Head NATO: Cancel F-35 Sales to Turkey

Gen. Tod D. Wolters participates in the "Fighting Under Fire" panel and discusses projecting power during the Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, Sept. 17, 2018. (U.S. Air Force/Andy Morataya)
Gen. Tod D. Wolters participates in the "Fighting Under Fire" panel and discusses projecting power during the Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, Sept. 17, 2018. (U.S. Air Force/Andy Morataya)

President Donald Trump's nominee to head NATO and U.S. forces in Europe backs canceling F-35 sales to Turkey if the NATO ally continues with plans to buy a Russian anti-air system designed to shoot them down.

Turkey's commitment to acquiring Russia's advanced S-400 anti-air system, despite its intention to buy 100 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, is unacceptable, Air Force Lt. Gen. Tod Wolters said Tuesday at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"I concur with this committee's belief that the S-400 and the F-35 are not compatible, and if Turkey proceeds down a path to procure and operate the S-400, they should not get the F-35," he said. "I would contend that we all understand that Turkey is an important ally in the region, but it's absolutely unsustainable to support co-location of an F-35 and S-400."

In addition, the S-400 system is not interoperable with NATO air defenses. The Russian system "speaks a different language than NATO English, and it certainly is not interoperable," Wolters said.

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He made the remarks a day after the Pentagon announced that shipments of Lockheed Martin Corp.'s fifth-generation F-35s to Turkey had been suspended.

"The United States has been clear that Turkey's acquisition of the S-400 is unacceptable," said acting Pentagon spokesman Charles Summers Jr.

Until Turkey cancels delivery of the S-400 system, "the United States has suspended deliveries and activities associated with the standup of Turkey's F-35 operational capability. Should Turkey procure the S-400, their continued participation in the F-35 program is at risk," Summers said.

Turkey took delivery of two F-35s at Fort Worth, Texas last June, and Turkish pilots have been training on the F-35 at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona.

The U.S. had offered the Patriot air defense system to Turkey, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pressed ahead with acquiring the S-400, adding to the increasingly fractious relationship between the U.S. and its NATO ally.

Erdogan has aggressively pursued closer relations with Russia and Iran, and has also repeatedly threatened to attack the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces backed by the U.S. in northeastern Syria.

Turkey has shown no signs of backing away from the deal with Russia. Last week, at a joint news conference in Turkey with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said, "We have an agreement with Russia, and we are bound by it."

Wolters, currently commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, spoke at his confirmation hearing for promotion to four-star rank and to succeed retiring Army Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti in the dual role as supreme commander of the 29-member NATO alliance and U.S. European Command.

He was joined at the hearing by Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, who has been nominated to succeed Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser as commander of U.S. Africa Command.

At the hearing, both Wolters and Townsend said their main concerns are a resurgent Russia seeking to counter U.S. influence and undermine allies and China's growing strategic and economic ties in Europe and Africa.

China's interest in Africa is primarily economic, but it is also after "access and influence," as shown by the establishment of its first overseas military base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, a few miles from the main U.S. base in the region, Townsend said. He said the Chinese are seeking "access and influence, to our detriment."

Both Townsend and Wolters were warmly endorsed by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, the committee chairman, and Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, the ranking member. There appeared to be little opposition to their swift confirmations.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct the timeline regarding when Turkey took delivery of its first two F-35s.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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