NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said today he hopes the United States can iron out its disagreements with Turkey, which stem from Ankara's decision to purchase a Russian-made missile defense system and led the U.S. Congress to block the sale of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to Turkey.
"It is well known there is a disagreement between the United States and Turkey on this issue," he said at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Stoltenberg said it is problematic that Turkey, a NATO member, has chosen to purchase the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system that is not interoperable with NATO allies.
"I hope that it's possible to find a solution because what we see now is a challenge for all of us that there is this disagreement on the issue of S-400," he said. "NATO has been a kind of platform for this dialogue. Turkey is a very important ally for NATO for many reasons, but not least for its geographic location."
Turkey, bordering both Iraq and Syria, is home to several air bases and other defense infrastructure that have proven instrumental in projecting U.S. power in the Middle East and Africa.
But lawmakers recently agreed to a fiscal year 2019 defense appropriations bill that pauses all sales of F-35s to Turkey pending a Pentagon review of U.S.-Turkey relations. The pause in F-35 sales to Turkey is also part of the FY-19 National Defense Authorization Act.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), who backed a Senate measure fully barring any F-35 sales to Turkey until it reverses its decision to purchase the S-400, released a statement saying current legislation does not go far enough.
"The language in the [appropriations] bill falls short of what is needed to prevent our national security from being compromised," he said. "The Senate provision established a clear, bright line to protect our security by prohibiting Turkey from obtaining the F-35 advanced aircraft if they proceed with their current plan to purchase the S-400 Russian missile defense system. The final bill replaces that bright line with fuzzy language that fails to send a strong message that such a combination would pose an unacceptable threat."
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, meanwhile, has requested that Congress allow Turkey to remain part of the F-35 program for fear of driving that nation -- and others -- further into the eager arms of Russia.