The US Congress is moving to block the delivery of first Lockheed Martin F-35 jet fighters to Turkey come June 12, at this point not because of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, but because Turkey has been holding a Presbyterian minister from North Carolina hostage for the past year and a half.
“On its surface, because they’re a NATO ally, I don’t object to it,” Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) said on the Senate floor earlier this week, “But today, I strongly object to it.”
Turkey has, indeed, been part of the NATO alliance since 1952, but through most of that era it has been a decidedly secular country, where the military suppressed attempts by Islamist groups to gain a foothold in government. Erdogan, who founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2001, leading it to general election victories, is the first Islamist in power in Turkey since the last Sultan (Mehmed VI, who was removed from the throne when the Ottoman sultanate was abolished in 1922).
Senator Tillis reported, having visited Pastor Andrew Brunson in jail two months ago, that the clergyman is being held on “bogus” charges, intended to force the US to extradite Erdogan’s eternal enemy, Fetullah Gulen, who is hiding in Pennsylvania.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) has more geo-political reasons to hesitate on that F-35 delivery. Last year, the Turks announced that they had ordered the Russian S-400 air defense system, which is reportedly capable of hitting stealth warplanes such as the F-35. The S-400 is not compatible with NATO’s Western-made air defenses.
“The Turkish government claims to have purchased a Russian air defense system designed to shoot these very planes down,” she told the Senate. “NATO partners need these F-35s to counter Russian activity. We would be handing this technology over to the Kremlin if we granted Turkey these planes, and Congress will not stand for it.”
In other words, Russia and Turkey could run tests to discover the vulnerabilities of the F-35, and once Russia and Turkey have it, Iran will have it as well.
Senators Shaheen, Tillis, and James Lankford (R-OK) have submitted a bill ordering the Pentagon to ban the F-35 sale to Turkey, and said bill could delay the entire National Defense Authorization Act which is up for a Senate approval this month.
The Trump administration is also concerned, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Congress in May: “It is still very much a live issue, the Turks’ capacity to have access to the F-35.”
A Lockheed Martin spokesman, for his part, insisted on Thursday that the rollout ceremony for the new, proud owners in Fort Worth will take place on schedule next week.
“The F-35 program traditionally hosts a ceremony to recognize every US and international customer’s first aircraft,” the spokesman told Defense News. “The rollout ceremony for Turkey’s first F-35 aircraft is scheduled for June 21, the aircraft will then ferry to Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, where Turkish pilots will join the F-35A training pool.”