Wolters: US-Turkey Military Relationship Strong Despite S-400 Dispute

Supreme Allied Commander Europe Gen. Tod Wolters speaks during a change of command ceremony at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Mons, Belgium, on May 3, 2019. NATO photo by SSgt. Ross Fernie.

Despite the drawn-out, public fight over Turkey’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile system and its subsequent expulsion from the F-35 program, the military relationship between Washington and Ankara “remains productive,” the head of the US military in Europe said Oct. 3.

Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, commander of US European Command and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, told reporters at a Pentagon briefing that “small” disagreements such as the S-400 fight are akin to inconvenient rain.

“We have to wake up every morning and get to work in the rain,” he said, adding that the countries are “putting one foot in front of the other to march forward.”

Since it started receiving S-400s in early July, Turkey is in the process of unwinding—as Pentagon officials call it—from the Joint Strike Fighter program. The country originally planned to purchase 100 fighters, and seven Turkish companies built parts for the jet, including a center fuselage.

Following the US decision to block Turkey from owning or working with the F-35, Russia reached out to offer either the Su-35 or Su-57 jet as a replacement.

Defense officials maintain that Turkey remains an important NATO ally. While the US argues that a country can’t operate the S-400 and F-35 side-by-side, and Washington is still pushing Turkey to reject the Russian-made air defense system, Wolters said the trans-Atlantic military relationship remains strong. His job as a US and NATO commander is to “keep the relationship sound,” he added.

For example, US and Turkey continue their joint air and ground patrols on the Turkey-Syria border to keep an eye on potential threats there. Managed through a combined operations center in Turkey, American and Turkish forces have conducted nine patrols so far. Troops continue to act as brothers in arms during joint training exercises, such as this summer’s Anatolian Eagle, Wolters said.

“If you look at Turkish national interests and you look at US national interests, they’re much more closely aligned than with any other interlocutor that Turkey may be dealing with right now,” then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford noted at an August press briefing.