Why Lawmakers Are Trying To Block Delivery Of Fighter Jets To Turkey Turkey is scheduled to get its first F-35 jet fighters next week, but it is also considering buying Russia's most advanced anti-aircraft system. Congress is moving to block delivery of the warplane.

Why Lawmakers Are Trying To Block Delivery Of Fighter Jets To Turkey

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A week from today, Turkey is supposed to receive its first F-35 jet fighter at a ceremony in Texas. The F-35 is considered the world's most advanced and versatile warplane. Turkey has ordered more than a hundred of them. It also makes key parts for the Lockheed Martin stealth fighter. But there appears to be a problem. Congress is moving to block delivery of the F-35 to this key NATO ally. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: For Turkey, getting its first F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet would mean having a warplane many other nations want but few possess.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The F-35 brings a generational leap in technology that will ensure the war fighter survives in today's world as well as tomorrow's.

WELNA: That's from a Lockheed Martin promotional video. Turkey has already paid for some of its F-35s at $90 million apiece. Yesterday on the Senate floor, North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis referred to the arms deal with Turkey.


THOM TILLIS: On its surface, because they're a NATO ally, I don't object to it. But today, I strongly object to it.

WELNA: That's in part because of a Presbyterian minister from Tillis' North Carolina who's been in prison in Turkey for nearly a year and a half. Tillis considers him a political hostage being held to pressure the U.S. to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish preacher and political leader who Turkish authorities say was behind a failed coup attempt two years ago. New Hampshire Senate Democrat Jeanne Shaheen joined Tillis to cite another big reason for blocking the deal.


JEANNE SHAHEEN: The Turkish government claims to have purchased a Russian air defense system designed to shoot these very planes down. 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.

WELNA: Shaheen and Tillis inserted language in a big defense bill being voted on next week that orders the Pentagon to come up with a plan to keep the planes out of Turkey's hands. Late last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Congress the Trump administration is concerned as well.


MIKE POMPEO: It is still very much a live issue - the Turks' capacity to have access to the F-35.

WELNA: A more specific warning came last week from Wess Mitchell, the State Department's point man on Turkey.


WESS MITCHELL: They should expect that if they move forward with a sophisticated Russian weapons platform, they can expect to see it have a ripple effect for their participation in U.S. military industrial projects, and I think that includes F-35.

WELNA: The Pentagon's been somewhat less outspoken about Turkey's plans to buy the Russian air defense system known as the S-400. Thomas Goffus is a top Pentagon policy official. Here he is yesterday at the Atlantic Council.


THOMAS GOFFUS: Our preference is that they do not acquire the S-400. Given that, they are a sovereign nation, and they are trying to take care of their defense needs.

WELNA: Turkey insists its done nothing wrong. Nilsu Goren is a Washington-based expert on Turkey's military.

NILSU GOREN: Turkey sees no contradiction in purchasing a Russian air and missile defense system while continuing to work with its NATO partners.

WELNA: But Oklahoma Republican Senator James Lankford says Turkey's 66-year membership in NATO may be on the line.

JAMES LANKFORD: If Turkey is not going to end up cooperating with NATO, there's no reason to have a NATO base there.

WELNA: In fact, for NATO, Turkey's membership is crucial, says former U.S. ambassador to Turkey James Jeffrey.

JAMES JEFFREY: You can do nothing in the Levant, nothing against Iran or very little, nothing in the Caucasus, nothing in the Black Sea without Turkey's geographic space and its bases and its military force, which is the second-largest NATO. I mean, it's extremely important.

WELNA: Jeffrey thinks once Turkey gets past nationwide elections 10 days from now, its leaders may be more willing to patch things up with the U.S. David Welna, NPR News, Washington.

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