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White House Says Turkey Can't Buy New F-35 Fighter Jets


The United States has called off a giant arms sale to Turkey. This is a big deal because Turkey is a NATO ally, a major power positioned between Europe and the Middle East. Now the U.S. says it will not sell Turkey up to 100 highly advanced and super-expensive F-35 warplanes. This comes after Turkey chose to buy other weapons from Russia. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is with us now. Good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Tom, why would it matter to the United States if Turkey was buying both these F-35s and a Russian missile defense system?

BOWMAN: Well, Steve, simply because by having this Russian missile system - and, of course, Russian technicians to help the Turks operate it - the Russians could learn how to possibly shoot down the F-35, learn about any vulnerabilities to the aircraft. So the U.S. head to Turkey has said repeatedly there's no way you can be allowed to have the F-35 if you buy the Russian S-400.

INSKEEP: OK. And Turkey, forced to choose, ultimately chose the Russian system, and now it's losing the war planes. But this feels significant because Turkey has been a member of NATO just about since the beginning - 67 years, I think - has the largest military in NATO other than the United States itself. So what's this mean for the NATO alliance?

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, Pentagon officials tried to downplay any problems between Turkey and the alliance. They said denying Turkey the F-35 was unfortunate, but Turkey is, they say, still an important member of NATO. But, Steve, I reached out to a former U.S. representative to NATO, Ivo Daalder. And he said, listen, this is a big blow to NATO, that Turkey's actions will weaken the alliance because it can no longer be part of NATO's air defense system. So at a Pentagon briefing yesterday, I ran that by David Trachtenberg. He's a senior policy official. Let's listen to what he said.

DAVID TRACHTENBERG: I don't want to speculate in terms of what's going to happen with respect to NATO's weakening or strengthening. My only point was that the decisions we are taking here are intended to strengthen the partners and our capabilities in an alliance context.

BOWMAN: So as you can hear, he dodged the question. And, Steve, there are concerns at the Pentagon about where all this is going. Officials hope they can get past this, look to the future with Turkey. But some worry, you know, will Turkey become closer and closer to Russia? And if that happens, the question is, can they remain in NATO?

INSKEEP: Well, you can see the dilemma from the U.S. point of view because the original point of NATO was to confront Russia and contain Russia. That certainly changed over time. But Russia is seen as an adversary and a danger. And you have to ask, how can you keep Russia out of Turkey without pushing Turkey into the arms of Russia?

BOWMAN: That's a very concern - a great concern that, will they get closer and closer to Russia? And Turkey is a strategic partner in NATO, a very important member and also where it's located.

INSKEEP: And a country that helped to build the F-35 in the first place.

BOWMAN: That's right. And now those parts that Turkey makes for the F-35, they say, will now be made in the U.S. or other European countries. Lockheed, which makes the aircraft, said they'd been planning for this day, but they don't expect much disruption to the F-35 program.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks for the insight.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Bowman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.