A bi-partisan group of US senators introduced a bill on 26 April to prevent the transfer of the Lockheed Martin F-35A to Turkey.
The bill would also block Turkey’s role as a maintenance depot for the aircraft, according to a press release issued by the senators.
The bill was introduced on 26 April by Sen James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma, Sen Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, and Sen Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina.
Turkey, a NATO ally and partner in fighting ISIS, has ordered a total of 100 conventional take-off and landing F-35As. The first batch of 14 are already purchased, with deliveries scheduled to begin later this year. A total of 30 F-35As are scheduled for delivery to the Turkish Air Force by the end of 2022.
Sen Lankford said that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s disregard for the rule of law, diminishment of individual freedoms, consolidation of power and “strategic decisions” have fallen out of line with US interests. He also cited the imprisonment of American pastor Andrew Brunson, who is accused of helping the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in a failed coup attempt against Erdoğan. Brunson denies the allegations.
“These factors make the transfer of sensitive F-35 technology and cutting-edge capabilities to Erdogan’s regime increasingly risky,” said Sen Lankford. “Furthermore, 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. 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.”
In a joint statement, Sen Shaheen outlined the terms under which she would withdraw her support of the bill and agree to transfer of the F-35 to Turkey.
“Erdogan and his government must abide by the rule of law within his own country and abroad, and release Pastor Andrew Brunson and other Americans unlawfully held in Turkey,” she said. “There must also be an immediate end to the harassment and detainment of locally-employed staff at the US mission. Until that occurs, I’ll continue to join with Senators Lankford and Tillis to call for punitive action, including blocking the transfer of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.”
The move by the senators comes one week after a senior US diplomat threatened to use the Lockheed Martin F-35 programme as a retaliatory tool against Turkey for acquiring a sophisticated air defence system from Russia, the Almaz-Antey S-400 Triumf system. The S-400 is Russia's most advanced surface-to-air missile system on the export market. It's advertised with an "anti-stealth range" up to 81nm (150km).
Lankford and Shaheen have previously worked together to counter Turkey’s alleged abuses, including an announcement on 19 April to pursue targeted sanctions against Turkish officials in the Fiscal Year 2019 State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs spending bill. That proposal was also in response to the imprisonment of American pastor Brunson.