Turkey Reportedly Used S-400 System Against US-Made F-16s, and Congress Wants Answers

Two F-16 Fighting Falcon. fly in formation.
Two F-16 Fighting Falcon. fly in formation on October 30, 2019. (U.S. Air Force/ Master Sgt. Jason Rolfe)

Two lawmakers are requesting that the State Department provide details on Turkey's recent reported use of Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missile system against F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jets, as well as Russia’s ability to gather critical intelligence through it on U.S. and NATO allies.

Sens. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and James Lankford, R-Okla., sent a letter Wednesday to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after media reports that Turkey tracked U.S.-made F-16s flying in the eastern Mediterranean Sea during the Eunomia joint exercise in August involving France, Italy, Greece and Cyprus.

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"Reports of this activation make clear that Turkey has no intention of reversing course and divesting of this system," they wrote. The lawmakers seek more information on the alleged S-400 activation; whether Turkey can access NATO's tactical data link -- Link 16 -- through the system; and whether Russia can use this tactic as a backdoor to spy on America's allies.

"Reports also suggest that Turkey may plan a general test of the S-400 system near the city of Sinop," they wrote, referencing the northernmost point in the country on the Black Sea.

Turkey recently tested the radar components of its S-400, prompting Pompeo to visit Greece last month, according to a report this week from Greek news website ekathimernini.com. Follow-on reports from U.S. media outlets, however, stated that Turkey was readying to test components of the system -- but not activating the full batteries -- in coming weeks.

Turkey has used the S-400 radars to track its own F-16s in the past -- a move seen as hostile toward the U.S. and allies that operate the fourth-generation aircraft, according to a congressional source who spoke to Defense News in August. The action was one of many that spurred U.S. lawmakers to secretly block an undisclosed number of arms sales to Turkey over the last two years, Defense News reported.

The latest move adds to tensions between the U.S. and the NATO ally, which serves as a pivotal location for American troops conducting operations in both the Middle East and Europe.

Last year, after Turkey officially ordered Russia's S-400 missile system -- known to Moscow as the "F-35 killer" -- the U.S. removed it from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program and began taking steps to phase out aircraft parts produced by Turkey for the fifth-generation jet. It also asked Turkish students -- pilots and maintainers -- attending F-35 training at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, and Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, to leave.

Turkey made a verbal agreement with Russia to purchase the S-400 in 2017 even as the Pentagon and State Department attempted to dissuade it. Turkey formally took delivery of its first S-400 system equipment in July 2019 -- as shown by multiple videos of the delivery to the Murted military air base northwest of Ankara.

"The F-35 cannot co-exist with a Russian intelligence collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities," the White House said in a statement that month. At the time of Turkey's ouster from the F-35 program, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord explained that prolonged proximity between the F-35 and the S-400 might allow the missile system to "understand the profile" of the jet.

Lawmakers have repeatedly called on the Trump administration to impose sanctions on Turkey. Van Hollen and Lankford echoed that call Wednesday.

Word of potential sanctions has rattled Turkey. For example, in December, its foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, hinted the country could cut off American access to two key bases should the U.S. enforce the Countering America's Adversaries through Sanctions Act.

"Incirlik and Kürecik air bases can be brought to the agenda," Çavuşoğlu told Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency. "Congress members must understand that it is not possible to get anywhere with sanctions."

The Pentagon estimated last October that Turkey's S-400 would be operational by the end of 2019.

In their letter, Van Hollen and Lankford chastised the Pentagon for slow-rolling a suitable alternative to replace F-35 parts still made by Turkey. "The slow pace at which the Department of Defense is moving to remove Turkey from the F-35 supply chain has no doubt emboldened President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan," they wrote.

Turkey was responsible for supplying roughly 1,000 pieces for the stealth jet, some of which are still coming in. U.S. officials noted at the time of Turkey's expulsion from the F-35 program that finding new suppliers would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Pentagon is moving to wind down contracts with Turkish industries. While the Pentagon was hopeful it could find U.S. suppliers to expedite the parts, a formal break with Turkey likely will not occur until 2022, according to Bloomberg News.

The senators requested a response from Pompeo by next week.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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