In a sign of increasing tension between Washington and Ankara, three US senators introduced a bill on Thursday to block the sale of F-35 Lightning II fighters to Turkey in response to its detention of an American pastor Andrew Brunson.
Republican Senators James Lankford and Thom Tillis along with Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen introduced the bill on Thursday, to “To limit the transfer of F–35 aircraft to Turkey.”
In 2002, Turkey became a member of the Joint Strike Fighter program and it has at least 100 F-35 fighters on order from the United States.
The bill is driven by Turkish domestic practices, such as the arrests of the pastor and members of US diplomatic mission, as well as Ankara signing a deal with Russia to get its S-400 air defence system while threatening to remove US radar from its soil.
The limitations, however, could be waived by the president Trump upon proving to Congress that Turkey is not “taking steps to degrade NATO interoperability; exposing NATO assets to hostile actors; degrading the general security of NATO member countries; seeking to import or purchase defence articles from a foreign country with respect to which sanctions are imposed by the United States; or wrongfully or unlawfully detaining one or more United States citizens.”
Turkey “has continued down a path of reckless governance and disregard for the rule of law,” said Mr Lankford in a statement.
“The Turkish government continues to move closer and closer to Russia, as they hold an innocent American pastor in prison to use him as a pawn in political negotiations,” the senator added.
Also today in Congress, US defence Chief James Mattis told lawmakers that Washington “is seriously concerned” over Turkey’s purchases from Russia, and considered it an “outlier” behaviour for a NATO member.
Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri center for the Middle East, said the new Senate bill could change the way the F-35 program is structured.
At the moment “Congress did not have get to review the purchase arrangement, but this bill would change that” Mr Stein told The National. The other significant aspect he said is the linkage to Russia and the North Carolinian pastor.
Mr Stein who follows Turkey-US relations closely said “if the bill passes, we are staring down a legal challenge.” This could happen on two fronts: “The export of a jet Turkey helped to finance, alongside continued tensions about the imprisonment of innocent Americans.”