US Senate passes bill that could block sale of F-35 fighters to Turkey

The US Senate on Monday voted in favour of blocking the transfer of 100 F-35 fighter jets to Turkey, following months of increasing tension over the $10 billion sale between Ankara and Washington, the Financial Times reported on Monday.

The US Senate overwhelmingly approved a $716 billion defense budget that fulfills President Donald Trump’s desire to strengthen the US military. The 85-10 vote for the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) will give the Pentagon a $617,6 billion base budget plus an additional $68,5 billion for possible overseas operations, $21,6 billion for defense-related programs linked to the Department of Energy and $8,2 billion in other defense related expenditures.

The Senate NDAA also includes an amendment prohibiting sales to Turkey of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets, citing the purchase of the S-400 air defense system from Russia and detaining US citizens as the reasons. The amendment said that purchasing the S-400 system from Russia increases tensions and risks to the NATO alliance. It also demands the release of American Pastor Andrew Brunson, who is facing terror charges in Turkey.

Criticizing the US for trying to force Turkey not to purchase the S-400 air defense system from Russia, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu last week recalled that Turkey had been trying to purchase the Patriot air defense system from the US, but the missiles were never sold to Turkey when they were needed the most. “This is the reason why Turkey, which is in urgent need of these weapons, has chosen to purchase them from Russia,” he claimed.

Touching upon the F-35 fighter jets, Çavuşoğlu also emphasized that if Washington as the worst-case scenario decides not to sell F-35s to Turkey, then no one can tell Turkey not to buy aircraft from a second country or not to produce its own.

Turkey expects that the US will deliver the first F-35 joint strike fighters on June 21 with a ceremony despite the US Senate decision to block the procurement of the aircraft to the Turkish government, Çavuşoğlu said.

“There have been attempts in the US Congress regarding the F-35 delivery. Two fighters will be delivered to us on June 21, and there are also attempts [to block this delivery]. We can’t sustain a healthy relationship as such,” Çavuşoğlu said on Tuesday during a live interview with private broadcaster NTV.

“Come and let’s talk like we did in Manbij. Turkey is an important ally, and it cannot be in any entity that would risk NATO. They should not test sanctions by making an excuse of it,” he added.

The bill must now be reconciled with one already passed by the House of Representatives in May and a compromise measure must then be passed by both chambers and signed into law by President Trump.

The United States is due to deliver the first of F-35 jets to Turkey on June 21 according to the F-35 project agreement; however, the proposed bill is likely to delay the sale. The bill will prohibit the transfer of F-35s to Turkey until the US secretary of defense submits a plan to remove Turkey from participation in the programme, the Financial Times said.

The US secretary of defense is supposed to prepare a report on relations with Turkey in 60 days. Any sale of F-35 and F-16 fighters, Patriot air defense systems and military helicopters by the Pentagon to Turkey will be blocked until the report is submitted to the congressional committees.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said on Tuesday that the US Senate’s decision to pass a bill prohibiting the sale of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 jets to Turkey is unfortunate and against the spirit of strategic partnership. Yıldırım was also quoted by pro-government private broadcaster Haber Türk as saying that Turkey was not without alternatives and that the bill would not make Turkey vulnerable.

Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Hakan Çavuşoğlu also said on Tuesday that Turkey would take the F-35 fighter jets from the US. Speaking on a TV program on state-run broadcaster TRT, Çavuşoğlu said: “We will carry out our own active process, policies against those who try to limit Turkey’s independence and freedom with impositions. We will also definitely take the F-35s.”

Çavusoğlu said Turkey had made an agreement with the US and added: “Regarding the agreements, the necessary things were fulfilled. It is a convention.” He added that mutual agreements and conventions should be realized and he thinks that it will be realized. “The decision of the US House of Representatives and the decision of the US Senate do not have any value for us,” he said.

Ankara is slated to buy two batteries of S-400 missiles from Russia, which United States and NATO officials have repeatedly criticized due to what they say is the Russian system’s incompatibility with NATO systems.

Lockheed Martin, the maker of the F-35, said it still expects to hand over the initial F-35s to Turkey in a ceremonial exchange at Fort Worth, Texas, on June 21, before the bill becomes law, according to the Financial Times.

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