The Pentagon is urging caution surrounding a contested military deal with Turkey that would see it purchase several American-made F-35 warplanes that U.S. officials fear could be exploited for intelligence purposes by Russia, which has parallel military deals with Turkey.
The transfer of American F-35 jets to Turkey has emerged in recent months as a key sticking point in the United States's military alliance with Ankara, which has been strained due to the Turkish government's efforts to grow closer to Iran and Russia.
U.S. defense officials, speaking to the Washington Free Beacon, expressed concern about the arms deal, warning that Turkey's Russian allies could exploit the F-35s advanced computer systems by hooking them into the Moscow-made S-400 missile defense systems, which Turkey also operates.
The competing military interests have complicated the arms deal and are prompting the U.S. defense establishment to put the breaks on the F-35 transfer as it works to pull Turkey away from regimes like Russia and Iran.
"The S-400 is at its core computer, and the F-35 is, on the base level, an advanced computer," Eric Pahon, a Defense Department spokesman, told the Free Beacon. "You don't hook your computer up to an adversary's computer."
Due to this concern, the Pentagon remains "in the ‘prudent planning' phase, while continuing to work with our ally to find an outcome that meets both our needs," Pahon said. "We recognize Turkey lives in a tough neighborhood and its acquisition decisions are its sovereign choice."
Turkey has already been presented with the opportunity for a missile system that the Pentagon says is an "interoperable system" that works in conjunction with NATO allies. This would mitigate concerns over Turkey hooking the American F-35s into a Russian-built and operated system.
"We have been consistent at all levels of government in relaying our concerns to Turkey on the S-400 purchase and haven't made any major changes to the program yet," Pahon said. "We are communicating our concerns and working towards outcomes that preserve U.S., Turkish, and NATO security as hard as we can."
The F-35 sale to Turkey has been a flashpoint in the diplomatic relationship for some time, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan moves closer to Russia and Iran, particularly as it relates to the ongoing crisis in Syria.
Katie Wheelbarger, acting assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, expressed concerns in a recent Reuters report.
"There [are] decisions that come up constantly about things being delivered in anticipation of them eventually taking custody of the planes," Wheelbarger was quoted as saying by the news outlet. "So there's a lot of things in train that can be paused to send signals to them."
The arms deal cannot be viewed in a vacuum, experts say.
There remains an ongoing debate within the administration about how far it will go to punish Turkey for working against U.S. interests in the region.
Turkey is just one of several countries seeking to obtain another waiver from the Trump administration permitting it to continue purchasing Iranian crude oil, something that Iran hawks on Capitol Hill oppose.
The potential waiver could be another diplomatic tool to get Turkey to abandon its reliance on the Russian military.
"Trump still lives in a world where what he says goes. He doesn't understand that the Pentagon bureaucracy is dysfunctional on a good day but, add into the mix active insubordination, and it becomes even worse," said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon adviser and Middle East expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis "resisted punishing Turkey because he thought the relationship could be salvaged, and he kept the transfers in the works," Rubin said. "It's not clear that Trump and his appointees have pulled the right levers to halt the transfers immediately. As the old adage goes, personnel is policy. If the F-35 transfer goes through, it will be clear that both are broken."