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Trump: Turkey Is Out of F-35 Program; Esper & Warren Battle In Senate

Posted by Paul McLeary on

Army photo

Mark Esper and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley testify to Congress.

CAPITOL HILL: Turkey will be kicked out of the F-35 program now that it has taken delivery of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, President Trump said today after nearly four days of official US silence on the subject.

Trump spoke just hours after his nominee to be the next Defense Secretary criticized Ankara for taking delivery of the missile and radar system late last week, but the silence in between the delivery and Washington’s acknowledgement raised questions over whether President Trump would reach some sort of agreement with Turkish President Erdogan. 

“We are now telling Turkey we’re not going to sell you the F-35 fighter jets,” Trump said at the White House. But he did leave himself some wiggle room — and echoed his comments about Turkey he made at the G-20 summit — by telling reporters: “It’s a very tough situation that they’re in. And it’s a very tough situation that we’ve been placed in the United States. With all of that being said, we’re working through it. We’ll see what happens, but it’s not really fair.” 

Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning for his nomination hearing, Mark Esper said he’s told Turkish officials, “you can either have the S-400 or the F-35, you cannot have both.” He added that Turkey’s decision on the S-400, “is the wrong one and it’s disappointing.” 

Esper wasn’t asked during his three hours in the nominee seat if the US would slap sanctions on Ankara.

Vitaly Kuzmin

The S-400’s mobile radar.

Trump’s comments cap a two-year back and forth between Washington and Ankara over the purchase. Amercian and NATO officials have long maintained that the presence of the S-400 would put the F-35 at risk, because the data on its flight patterns sucked up by the Russian system would be available to Moscow.

But the S-400 issue was only a blip in Esper’s three-hour Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, in which he expressed continuity with the path former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis placed the department on by ramping up modernization programs to meet the peer threats posed by China and Russia.

“I am an avid supporter of the National Defense Strategy and its clear-eyed assessment of the strategic environment we find ourselves in today,” Esper said, while accusing China of “propagating the greatest theft of intellectual property in human history,” by hacking into US and allied computer networks and stealing classified materials for weapon systems and technology. 

Keeping with the NDS, Esper said the Pentagon needs to continue to modernize its forces “and capitalize on rapid technological advancements in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, directed energy, and hypersonic,” weapons.

While he did not echo former Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan’s mantra of “China, China, China,” it was clear Esper sees the economic giant as a more significant competitor than Russia, which faces demographic and economic challenges likely to slow its modernization efforts in coming years. 

Beijing wants to “do everything from replacing international institutions to replacing the dollar,” Esper said. With America’s allies in the Asia-Pacific, countering Beijing’s agenda is more important than building new weapons.

One area where Beijing has invested heavily is artificial intelligence. Esper laid out the issue in stark terms, saying, AI “will likely dominate the character of warfare. We have to get there first. We have to. Because whoever gets there first will dominate for many years.”

While Esper’s long history working on Capitol Hill, combined with his 20 months as Army Secretary, won him praise from Republicans and Democrats, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, long a critic of the “revolving door” between the defense industry and the government, slammed Esper for refusing to commit to recuse himself from all future decisions regarding his former employer, Raytheon, where he ran the company’s lobbying shop.

Esper told Warren he will continue to follow all laws and rules prescribed by government ethics officials when dealing with Raytheon issues, but Warren pushed for him to commit to full recusal, which he declined to address in his responses to Warren.

“This smacks of corruption, plain and simple,” charged the Massachusetts senator, who has been critical of Esper’s corporate ties in the past. Esper dumped his Raytheon stock in 2018 but remains entitled to at least $1 million in deferred compensation from the company starting in 2022.

“Let me get this straight,” Warren said. “You insist on being free to seek a waiver that would let you make decisions affecting Raytheon’s bottom line and your remaining financial interest. And you won’t rule out taking a trip right back through the revolving door on your way out of government service.

“You can’t make those commitments to this committee, that means you should not be confirmed as secretary of defense.” Warren holds the power to delay Esper’s transition to Defense Secretary.

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