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Trump downplays Turkey's purchase of a Russian missile system

Key Points
  • The S-400 is said to pose a risk to the NATO alliance as well as Lockheed Martin’s F-35 stealth fighter.
  • Under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, Turkey faces economic sanctions for buying the Kremlin’s missile system.
An S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missile launcher during a military parade in Moscow.
Yuri Smityuk | TASS | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said he could not blame Turkey for buying a Russian missile system, a move that resulted in dropping the NATO ally's participation in the F-35 program.

"I don't blame Turkey because there are a lot of circumstances and a lot of ... problems that occurred during the Obama administration," Trump said. "This dates back to the Obama administration, which was a disaster."

Trump, who spoke to reporters at the White House, did not elaborate on whether he would impose sanctions on Turkey for doing business with the Kremlin. Under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which the president signed in August 2017, Turkey could face economic sanctions for buying the Russian-made missile system.

"It's a tough situation. They're getting the S-400 and our statues and everything else — as you do that, you just can't order this equipment," Trump said. "And generally speaking, you can't order equipment period."

Earlier this month, Turkey accepted delivery of the S-400, a mobile surface-to-air missile system, that is said to pose a risk to the NATO alliance as well as Lockheed Martin's F-35 stealth fighter jet.

In 2017, Ankara brokered a deal reportedly worth $2.5 billion with the Kremlin for the S-400 despite warnings from the U.S. that buying the system would come with political and economic consequences.

The S-400, the successor to the S-200 and S-300 missile systems, made its debut in 2007. Compared with U.S. systems, the Russian-made S-400 is believed to be capable of engaging a wider array of targets, at longer ranges and against multiple threats simultaneously.

In multiple efforts to deter Turkey from buying the S-400, the State Department offered in 2013 and 2017 to sell the country Raytheon's Patriot missile system. Ankara passed on the Patriot both times because the U.S. declined to provide a transfer of the system's sensitive missile technology.

All the while, Turkey became a financial and manufacturing partner in Lockheed Martin's F-35 jet, the world's most advanced fighter.

Last week, the White House said in a statement that it made "multiple offers to move Turkey to the front of the line to receive the U.S. Patriot air defense system," which CNBC reported in April.

"Unfortunately, Turkey's decision to purchase Russian S-400 air defense systems renders its continued involvement with the F-35 impossible. The F-35 cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities," the White House said last Wednesday, adding that there will be "detrimental impacts" on Turkey's participation in NATO.

What this means for America's top defense firms

A U.S. Air Force F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter approaches at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.
U.S. Air Force photo by Samuel King Jr.

People with knowledge of the negotiations told CNBC that Lockheed Martin and Raytheon were preparing to make massive adjustments to their intricate production schedules amid contentious negotiations with Turkey.

If Turkey went through with the Russian deal, Lockheed Martin would have to rework its supply chain on components for the F-35 fighter jet, while also making changes to its production schedule. Yet if Turkey abandoned its deal with Russia, Raytheon would reorganize the Patriot missile defense system production schedule to guarantee that Turkey could receive the missile system within a faster time frame.

Lockheed said in a statement last week that it has taken actions to limit the impact and expects to meet its commitment of delivering 131 F-35s this year.

"Over the last several months we've been working to establish alternative sources of supply in the United States to quickly accommodate Turkey's current contributions to the program," Lockheed Martin said.

Meanwhile, nearly 13 countries have expressed interest in buying Russia's S-400 missile system. China and India have already signed purchase agreements with the Kremlin. China, which is embroiled in a trade battle with the U.S., is in the middle of receiving its final shipment of the S-400 system. India signed a deal with Moscow for the S-400 in October. Turkey received its S-400 earlier this month and is expected to have the system ready for use by 2020.