The United States has delivered the first of the six F-35 warplanes it has contracted to give to Turkey, despite domestic opposition over Ankara’s decision to buy the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system.
Manufacturer Lockheed Martin officially handed over the first plane to Turkish officials during a ceremony in Fort Worth, Texas, various media outlets reported on Thursday.
A second plane will be brought “at a later date” to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, said Lieutenant Colonel Mike Andrews, a Pentagon spokesman. The remaining four will be staying in the US until 2020.
Turkey, which is a NATO member, has been a partner in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter project, a consortium financing the warplanes, since 1999.
To Washington’s disappointment, the country is also to start taking delivery of the Russian surface-to-air defense system by early 2020. For now, Russia is producing the defense systems for Turkey under a loan agreement concluded between the countries last December.
US senators have opposed F-35’s delivery in the light of Ankara’s plans to purchase the Russian systems.
In a defense budget bill approved on Tuesday, the Senate demanded that F-35 sales be scrapped if Turkey went ahead with its S-400 purchase plan.
“Any effort by the government of the Republic of Turkey to further enhance their relationship with Russia will degrade the general security of the NATO alliance, and NATO member countries, and degrade interoperability of the alliance,” the bill reads.
If both chambers of the US Congress approve that version of the bill, US President Donald Trump’s administration will be obliged to exclude Turkey from the F-35 project, remove from the aircraft all parts made in Turkey, and ban the Turkish F-35s from leaving US territory.
Ankara’s close ties with Russia are just one bone of contention in the Turkish-American relations.
Turkey has strongly opposed US plans to arm anti-Ankara Kurds in Syria and Iraq. The country is also raging at Washington over its refusal to extradite Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara accuses of masterminding a 2016 coup against the Turkish government.