Congress’ final version of the fiscal year 2019 defense policy bill halts sales of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to Turkey pending a full review of all defense sales to the country and an assessment of its impending purchase of the Russian-built S-400 missile defense system.

House and Senate lawmakers released their National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) conference report Monday evening. The F-35 provision goes against Secretary of Defense Mattis’ call to continue the eventual transfer process of up to 100 F-35A’s to Turkey and pauses the program until the Pentagon delivers an assessment on its relationship with Ankara.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Photo by Lockheed Martin.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Photo by Lockheed Martin.

“Despite the longstanding alliance between the U.S. and Turkey, our relationship has been strained in recent years because of the Turkish government’s wrongful imprisonment of American citizens. The NDAA sends a crystal clear message to President Erdogan that the United States expects Turkey to uphold its obligations as a NATO ally, including respecting the due process rights of American citizens,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), an NDAA conferee, said in a statement.

Tillis’ amendment, co-authored with with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), was included in the final version of the bill.

The final version of the NDAA does support the White House’s request for the Pentagon to purchase 77 F-35s and authorizes $92 million for spare parts procurement.

Negotiators also settled on a provision to include a House amendment allowing DoD to exercise buy-to-budget authority for the F-35 and a Senate provision requiring quarterly briefings on the program through October 2022. The conference report also includes a House directive limiting the availability of F-35 Continuous Capability Development and Delivery program funds until DoD submits a detailed cost estimate and baseline schedule for the program.

Mattis spelled out his position that a pause on the F-35 program with Turkey could cause “supply chain disruptions” in a July 7 letter to Congress, according to press reports. 

The House’s original version of the bill gave the Pentagon 60 days to submit a report to the congressional defense committees on the U.S.-Turkish defense relationship and implications of the S-400 purchase, but the final conference report moved the deadline up to 90 days.

Lawmakers in their conference report raised concerns that Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system could pose “operational and counterintelligence risks,” and the potential to use the platform to steal F-35 information.

The conference report also cites ongoing humanitarian negotiations with the Turkish government that will continue to hold up future foreign military sales, including the imprisonment of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor.

“The Brunson thing is still a major issue that needs to be accommodated. That was one of the failures, in my opinion, because that didn’t happen,” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who has been the senior Republican conferee for the Senate Armed Services Committee during conference deliberations while Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) recovers from cancer in Arizona, told Defense Daily. “A failure in terms of the final arrangement. [F-35] should have been enough to persuade them to make the Brunson thing happen and it didn’t work.”

The final version of the NDAA does support the White House’s request to purchase 77 F-35’s, and authorizes $92 million for spare parts procurement.

Bruce Tanner, chief financial officer of F-35 prime contractor Lockheed Martin [LMT], said on the company’s second quarter earnings call on Tuesday that it doesn’t see any near-term impact from the potential halt in aircraft deliveries to Turkey. He pointed out that the aircraft are delivered to the U.S. government as part of a Foreign Military Sales program, and that initial deliveries to all international customers are made in the U.S. for training purposes.

“So we’ve got some time before those aircraft would leave the U.S. and go in country,” Tanner said.

Marillyn Hewson, chairman, president and CEO of Lockheed Martin, said the company has been in talks with senior Pentagon officials about the Turkish matter, adding there is time before any actions are taken. She also said the company will comply with official U.S. policy. She added that the company understands the potential impacts on the F-35 supply chain should deliveries of the aircraft be halted.

Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) said during a Tuesday Mitchell Institute event that the House is likely to vote on the NDAA conference report Thursday morning.