After pushing the sale of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey – which critics said could be used against Greece if a conflict arose - US President Donald Trump signed a defense budget law delaying the deal for 90 days.
The $716 billion John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 (NDAA) prohibits the sale until the Pentagon produces a report on the risks entailed by the fellow NATO member-country’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system.
Turkey received its first pair of a projected 100 aircraft in June. The jets remain in the US while their Turkish pilots receive training. Delivery will not take place before September 2019.
But relations with Turkey have gotten tense after Trump doubled tariffs on Turkish steel after failed talks to release Andrew Brunson, a 50-year-old American evangelical minister, imprisoned since 2016 for his alleged antigovernment activity against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In July, with two having already been sold, the White House said Turkey should be allowed to buy nearly 100 F-35 fighter jets.
Trump opposed to Congressional initiatives by lawmakers friendly to Greece that would restrict the transfer of the F-35s, the Director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney said in a letter.
“Turkey is an important NATO ally and has been an international participant with the F-35 program since 2002,” Mulvaney wrote in the July 9 letter to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby.
“The administration shares the Congress’s concerns over recent Turkish actions but opposes language that preemptively restricts its ability to work with Turkey to address those concerns,” he added. Greece is an important NATO ally too, the US said, even while doing nothing while continues to send warships past Greek islands and flood Greek airspace with F-16 fighter jets who are frequently in mock dogfights by Greek pilots, who would be at a disadvantage against F-35s.
Erdogan won re-election in snap polls he called that also gave him near-dictatorial powers as he has stepped up provocations in the Aegean against Greece and Cyprus, where Turkish warships are trying to block foreign energy companies from drilling for oil and gas.
The Senate committee said that the transfer of the F-35s should not occur “until the Secretary of State certifies to the appropriate congressional committees that the government of Turkey is not purchasing the S-400 missile defense system from Russia and will not accept the delivery of such a system.”
US Senator Chris Van Hollen in June announced an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2019 State, Foreign Operations Act calling a halt to the pending delivery of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey but Trump wants to let Turkey have both the American fighter jets and the Russian missile defense system that could also be used against Greece.
Greece and Turkey earlier this year came to the edge of a conflict after Greek ships were twice rammed off the rocky, disputed islets of Imia where they had nearly gone to war in 1996, and where three Greek servicemen died in a helicopter crash amid unrelenting speculation they were shut down and the incident covered up.
Leading Greek-American groups and members of Congress who side with Greece had seen their calls go unheeded.