By Michael Hernandez
WASHINGTON (AA) – U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper voiced hope Wednesday that Turkey would abandon the S-400 anti-air system, saying Turkey could return to the F-35 program if it does so.
Esper told reporters at the Pentagon during an exceedingly rare news briefing that short of completely doing away with the Russian S-400 system, Ankara would not be allowed to return to the F-35.
"I’ve been very clear in both my public comments and privately with my Turkish counterpart: it’s either the F-35 or the S-400. It’s not both. It’s not park one in the garage, and roll the other one out. It’s one or the other," Esper said.
"So we are where we are and it’s regrettable. As I’ve said, Turkey’s been a long-standing, a great partner and ally, and I would hope that they would move back in our direction and really live up to what NATO agreed to many years ago, and that was to begin divesting of Soviet-era Russian equipment," he added. "They seem to be moving in a different direction.”
The Trump administration has already suspended Turkey from the F-35 system over Ankara's receipt of the S-400, but some hopes centered on a compromise wherein Turkey could keep the Russian anti-air system, but keep it turned off in order to return to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.
U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly voiced reluctance to penalize Turkey over its purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system, doing so when announcing Ankara's removal from the program in July.
The Trump administration has maintained that the S-400 system could expose the advanced fighter to possible Russian subterfuge and is incompatible with NATO systems.
Turkey, however, counters that the S-400 would not be integrated into NATO systems and would not pose a threat to the alliance.
Trump blames the Obama administration for the current row over its refusal to sign a deal with Turkey to sell it American defense firm Raytheon's Patriot missile system.
Turkey received the second batch of the S-400 on Tuesday, and the delivery is slated to continue for one month, according to Turkey's defense ministry.
Ankara received its first supply of S-400 missiles in July. The delivery of the first battery was completed on July 25.
Sensing that its protracted efforts to purchase an air defense missile system from the ally U.S. was not heading towards success, Turkey in April 2017 signed a contract with Russia to acquire the S-400.
Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey's foreign minister, said Wednesday that if Ankara does not get F-35 fighter jets the country will look for alternatives. But Cavusoglu said that is not the preferred option.