Trump Defense Chief Cautions Turkey Over Russia Missile Purchase

(Bloomberg) -- Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan said he’s working to persuade Turkey to drop plans to buy a Russian missile defense system, saying that would imperil prospects to sell the NATO ally the next-generation F-35 jet it’s helping to build.

Shanahan has spoken with his Turkish counterpart, Hulusi Akar, five times since becoming acting defense secretary on Jan. 1, he said in an interview Thursday in his Pentagon office. While some of those talks have centered on Syria policy as President Donald Trump seeks a “significant” drawdown of U.S. forces there, Shanahan said the S-400 missile defense system has also been a key topic.

Trump Defense Chief Cautions Turkey Over Russia Missile Purchase

“My position is that the S-400 and F-35 are incompatible -- meaning that they don’t go together,” Shanahan said. “We want to find a solution that makes the F-35, for a strategic partner, a critical asset in their military,” he said of Turkey.

Asked what action the U.S. will take if Turkey -- as its officials have repeatedly said -- goes ahead and buys the sophisticated air defense system, Shanahan said “we’ll cross that bridge when we get there, but we are talking about making sure they have” U.S.-made Patriot air defenses. “That’s been the discussion I’ve been having.”

Turkey has rejected a U.S. proposal to deliver one Patriot missile defense system by the end of 2019, which was conditional on Ankara abandoning the deal with Russia, two senior Turkish officials familiar with the talks said on Friday. The proposal didn’t include a loan agreement nor a technology sharing pact, a key Turkish demand, they said.

A U.S. official familiar with the negotiations said Turkey appeared to be looking for reasons to walk away from the U.S. deal. The U.S. has offered Turkey better terms on both pricing and co-production than Russia, in an effort to persuade it not to go through with the S-400 purchase, the official said. 

‘Strategic Partner’

Pressed as to whether he’s seeing progress with Turkey on the issue, Shanahan said, “They’re a strategic partner and I think at the end of the day they’ll remain a strategic partner.”

Turkey is a crucial participant in the U.S.-led program to build the F-35, the U.S.’s costliest weapons system. Ten Turkish companies are set to produce about $12 billion in parts for the fighter jet, including key components such as the center fuselage and some landing gear.

Turkey has planned to buy about 100 F-35s, joining Japan, the U.K. and Australia as the top international customers for the plane from Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp.

Trump Defense Chief Cautions Turkey Over Russia Missile Purchase

Turkey’s move to buy the S-400 reflects a broader political shift as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan finds himself increasingly at odds with the U.S. While Trump initially praised Erdogan after taking office in 2017, he’s raised tariffs on the country, feuded over a detained American pastor who was later released and declined to extradite a Turkish cleric who Erdogan blames for being behind a failed coup in 2016.

The Russian S-400 was designed to shoot down U.S. and allied aircraft at greater ranges and altitudes than older systems. American officials are concerned that sensitive F-35 technology designed to evade such a system could be compromised and used to improve Russia’s air defense system if Turkey ends up with both systems.

Trump Defense Chief Cautions Turkey Over Russia Missile Purchase

Turkey risks expulsion from the F-35 program if its government takes delivery of the Russian system, according to an unclassified summary of a Pentagon report sent to Congress in November.

Syria Drawdown

Despite the tensions, Shanahan emphasized that Turkey remains a valuable ally, particularly as the U.S. seeks to carry out Trump’s plan to reduce the approximately 2,000-strong troops it has in Syria. Trump’s initial announcement that he would pull all forces out of Syria -- whose eight-year conflict he said is no more than “sand and death” -- led to concerns that Kurdish allies in Syria would face attack by Turkey, which considers them terrorists.

European allies also balked at staying in Syria as part of the coalition to defeat Islamic State. That led the Trump administration to scale back the president’s initial withdrawal plans, and about 400 U.S. troops are now expected to remain in the country. Shanahan, who wouldn’t discuss troop levels, said it would be a “residual” force.

“We’re there to defeat ISIS,” Shanahan said, referring to Islamic State. “We are on plan to withdraw from Syria. There will be a residual presence.”

‘Effortless’ Cooperation

While Trump’s initial Syria announcement in December -- which prompted Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to resign -- drew bipartisan criticism and protests from allies, Shanahan said decision-making among the president’s top aides has been exceptionally smooth and “effortless.”

The former Boeing Co. executive cited his working relationship with cabinet counterparts including Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

Trump hasn’t made clear whether he intends to nominate Shanahan, 56, who served as a deputy to Mattis, for defense secretary. But he earned high praise from the president on Dec. 23, when he said Shanahan would replace Mattis at year-end, two months before Mattis had planned to depart.

“Patrick has a long list of accomplishments while serving as Deputy, & previously Boeing,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

Since then, Shanahan has given Trump full support for controversial initiatives including the decision to use Pentagon funding and troops to bolster the presence at the southern U.S. border. When Trump disparaged Mattis at a cabinet meeting in early January -- scoffing “what’s he done for me?” -- Shanahan was at his side.

In the interview, Shanahan brushed aside criticism that he’s auditioning for the role of defense secretary through his vocal enthusiasm for the president’s initiatives, saying his job as acting Pentagon chief could be summed up by the acronym GSD -- “get stuff done.”

“Let’s not worry about whether he’s a ‘yes man’ or a ‘no man’ but whether he’s a ‘can-do’ man,” Shanahan said. “I just spend all my time getting stuff done.”

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