Lawmakers Again Attempt to Block F-35 Sale to Turkey

Three U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning IIs, assigned to the 4th Fighter Squadron from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, conduct flight training operations over the Utah Test and Training Range on Feb 14, 2018. (U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)
Three U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning IIs, assigned to the 4th Fighter Squadron from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, conduct flight training operations over the Utah Test and Training Range on Feb 14, 2018. (U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

For the second time in two years, lawmakers are attempting to block the sale of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to Turkey over the "increased risk" the NATO ally's recent actions pose to U.S. interests.

Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.; James Lankford, R-Okla.; and Thom Tillis, R-N.C., introduced a measure Thursday that would stop the transfer of the F-35A. It would also block Turkey from having a role in depot maintenance for the aircraft.

In conjunction with Lockheed Martin Corp., the F-35's manufacturer, Turkish defense companies already help produce part of the plane.

"Turkey's strategic decisions regrettably fall more and more out of line with, and at times in contrast to, U.S. interests," Lankford said in a statement. "These factors make the transfer of sensitive F-35 technology and cutting-edge capabilities to Erdogan's regime increasingly risky."

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Turkey, a coalition member in the fight against the Islamic State, plans to buy more than 100 F-35As, the conventional takeoff and landing model of the fifth-generation stealth fighter. The first delivery is expected this year.

Separately, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has been pushing for a waiver that would allow Turkey to purchase Russian S-400 anti-air defense systems, saying some countries still depend heavily on Moscow to refresh aging weapons. The juxtaposition of the two efforts highlights the complex relationship the U.S. has with Turkey, which hosts Incirlik Air Base, a key Air Force hub.

Lankford said the lawmakers' recent decision also stems from "a hostage situation" that has angered the U.S. He publicly denounced Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's assertion for more authoritative power.

"The Turkish government continues to move closer and closer to Russia, as they hold an innocent American pastor, Andrew Brunson, in prison to use him as a pawn in political negotiations," Lankford said. "The United States does not reward hostage-taking of American citizens; such action instead will be met with the kind of punitive measures this bill would enact."

According to the Christian Broadcasting Network, Brunson could face up to 35 years in prison for "enjoying a meal" often prepared by Kurds. Turkey linked this to Brunson being involved in the PKK (The Kurdistan Workers' Party), which the country considers to be a terrorist organization.

Brunson was in Turkey for 23 years before the accusation, according to The Hill. He has denied any terrorist connections.

Last year, Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, proposed an amendment to the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act that would ban the sale of F-35s to Turkey after members of Erdogan's security detail were seen beating protesters outside the Turkish embassy in Washington, D.C.

A judge earlier this month sentenced two accomplices in the May 2017 attack to one year and a day in prison.

Turkey meanwhile will receive a military weapons boost from Russia. Earlier this month, NATO-ally Turkey firmed up a $2.5 billion deal for the purchase of S-400 surface-to-air missile systems.

Turkey in July agreed to purchase four Russian-made S-400 mobile missile batteries -- called an "F-35 killer" by Moscow -- over the next few years. It finalized the deal in September.

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

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