The Pentagon would consider allowing Turkey to rejoin the F-35 stealth jet program only if the Russian S-400 air defense system is completely removed from Turkish soil, meaning the government in Ankara could not simply keep the system deactivated in warehouses, the Pentagon’s top official said Wednesday, according to the DefenseNews website.
“They have to, again, get rid of the S-400 program and completely out of the country [before] we could consider that,” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told the press when asked if Turkey could find a way to again be part of the Joint Strike Fighter program.
“I have been very clear in both my public comments and privately with my Turkish counterpart: It’s either the F-35 or the S-400,” he said. “It’s not both. It’s not park one in the garage and roll the other one out. It’s one or the other. So we are where we are, and it’s regrettable.”
Turkey, a partner in the F-35 program that helped fund the development of the jet, planned to buy 100 F-35As. However, a decision by Ankara to purchase the S-400 threw a political bomb into the F-35 acquisition plan; the US and its NATO allies expressed major concerns about the Russian system sharing airspace with the alliance’s newest fighter.
In July Turkey took possession of the first S-400 equipment, and the US formally kicked the country out of the F-35 program. As a result, by March 2020, Turkey’s industrial participation in the F-35 program will be done, with work shifted to US companies.
The secretary’s comments were the first official confirmation that a path, however narrow, for Turkey to rejoin the program does exist.
Some analysts have questioned whether a loophole exists that would allow Ankara to back down, save face and regain the fifth-generation fighter. Should Turkey keep the S-400 parts in a warehouse somewhere not actively running, the argument goes, the US could invite Turkey back to the F-35 program.
But Esper seemed to shut that down, saying, “No, not in my book,” when asked about the possibility.