U.S. General: Don’t Sell the F-35 to Turkey If It Buys Russian Missiles

The head of the NATO military alliance worries Turkey's purchase of the S-400 missile system could harm the fifth-generation fighter, potentially around the world.

S-400 Triumf anti-aircraft weapon systems go on combat duty in Sevastopol, Crimea
Sergei MalgaoGetty Images

The top U.S. military officer in Europe has warned the United States not to sell the F-35 to Turkey—if that country follows through on its attempt to buy an advanced Russian surface-to-air missile system. Even though Turkey is a NATO ally, the worry is that sensitive information about America's most advanced fighter could find its way to the Kremlin.

General Curtis Scaparotti, the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and the head of U.S. European Command, voiced his concerns before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Scarparotti says he has two objections. The first is that the S-400 Russian missile Turkey wants to buy isn’t designed to work with NATO systems. As a consequence, the S-400 might not be able to pick up on cues that it is detecting friendly NATO aircraft.

For example: NATO planes typically have (IFF) transponders that, when interrogated by friendly air defenses, send back a signal indicating the aircraft is friendly. If an aircraft does not send back a signal, it could well be a hostile military aircraft. The Russian missile tech is almost certainly not compatible with NATO’s well-established IFF system, especially the new "Mode 5" expected to be standardized across the alliance in 2020.

Turkey takes delivery of first F-35 fighter jet in US
Acceptance ceremony for the first Turkish F-35, June 2018.
Anadolu AgencyGetty Images

The second objection, according to Military.com, is that the sale presents a “problem” to NATO aircraft, specifically the F-35. America's worry here is that data about the F-35 could flow back to Russia, which could allow Moscow to improve the performance of its air defenses against the F-35 and other NATO jets. Scaparotti didn't come right out and say this; criticizing Turkey is tricky terrain, since, as NATO commander, he would command Turkish forces in the event of war. But the implication is clear.

Turkey is a longtime buyer of U.S. military equipment and was an early partner in the F-35 program. The nation has helped pay for the development of the F-35 and has orders in for 100 of the jets. Turkey also wanted the American Patriot missile system but complained at the price tag and the lack of technology transfer.

The is Russia’s most advanced surface-to-air missile system, capable of engaging up to 36 targets simultaneously and at ranges of up to 248 miles. In addition to Russian service, the S-400 has been sold to China, Turkey, India, and Saudi Arabia. If F-35 data does flow back to Russia, it could impact the F-35’s prospects of operating in denied air spaces worldwide.

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