Despite an ostentatious “roll out” ceremony by Lockheed Martin last week in Fort Worth to mark the handover of the first F-35-A Lightning II jet bound for Turkey, the advanced stealth multi-role fighter isn’t going anywhere anytime soon as we previously explained after the Senate passed a draft defense bill for FY 2019 that would halt the transfer until the secretary of state certifies that Turkey will not accept deliveries of Russian S-400 ‘Triumf’ air-defense systems.

Following upon previous warnings, the US State Department has again threatened that Turkey will be targeted by sanctions if it receives the S-400 from Russia under a contract finalized between Ankara and Moscow at the end of 2017, said to be worth $2.5 billion.

Image source: US Military Technology/YouTube screengrab

The State Department recalled that this decision is a result of the bill President Donald Trump signed into law last summer, which seeks to punish companies that do business with the Russian defense industry.

On Tuesday a top State Department official — Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Wess Mitchell — stated the following at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

“We made it clear that if Turkey buys S-400s… there will be consequences. We will introduce sanctions within Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).” 

“We believe that we have existing legal authorities that would allow us to withhold transfer under certain circumstances, including national security concerns,” he said. “We believe that we continue to have the time and ability to ensure Turkey does not move forward on S-400 before having to take a decision on – on F-35. We’re being very clear in our messaging to the Turks that there will be consequences.”

And notably Mitchell also highlighted Turkey’s deteriorating human rights record, estimating that about two dozen Americans remain illegally detained in the country, many of them dual nationals (though we should note that Washington only plays the ‘human rights’ card on allies selectively and when convenient). 

In spite of Lockheed Martin’s formal “handover” the US has plenty of time (perhaps years even) to block the F-35 contract while Congress firms up the legal basis for such a maneuver after the Senate Appropriations Committee recently added an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2019 that would put a stop to future deliveries should Ankara refuse to cancel the S-400 deal.

The main argument for blocking the F-35 transfer is the fear that Russia would get access to the extremely advanced Joint Strike Fighter stealth aircraft, enabling Moscow to detect and exploit its vulnerabilities. Russia would ultimately learn how the S-400 could take out an F-35.

Here’s the more bizarre side of the Lockheed Martin ceremony involving US and Turkish officials that most didn’t see:

We noted previously that the US government will retain custody of the aircraft while the Turkish pilots and service technicians are undergoing training at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. This is a long process that will likely take several years, but the bill is expected to become law this summer, at which point the Trump administration will have no choice but to exclude Turkey from the F-35 program, to remove any parts of the plane produced in that country, and to ban the Turkish F-35s from leaving the territory of the United States.

According to Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, no F-35 jets will arrive Turkey until 2020, but by then the transfer’s stoppage could be a foregone conclusion.

Meanwhile, other US officials haven’t shied away from public statements about their intentions to exert pressure and prevent other countries from buying Russian weapons.

But these latest statements have evoked fierce reactions from both Russian and Turkish officials, with Russian state-run TASS highlighting the following:

Last week, Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli slammed the US demand to give up the deal to purchase S-400 air defense missile systems from Russia as ‘blackmail.’ Canikli also said that Turkey “is fulfilling all its commitments” and expected “timely deliveries of F-35 fighter jets” from the United States.

And TASS further emphasizes that Turkey will not bend:

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told NTV channel last week that Turkey will purchase Russia’s S-400 missile systems and this issue is closed. He stressed that Turkey is not planning to give up this deal despite the decision of the US Senate.

Turkish Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hami Aksoy said on May 25 his country could take measures against the United States if Washington refused to supply F-35 to Ankara.

It could become a game of who will call the first bluff, and if Congress has anything to do with the US side will not lose this diplomatic standoff, even as Turkish President Recep Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin announced in April that they agreed to expedite the delivery of S-400 systems.

The delivery would theoretically start in late 2019 and early 2020, but this timetable is increasingly looking less likely. 

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