Frank Kendall appears for his confirmation hearing to be Air Force secretary before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, May 25.

Frank Kendall appears for his confirmation hearing to be Air Force secretary before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, May 25. Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

US Air Force Will Cut Turkey from F-35 Production, Kendall Says

The service secretary nominee also signals he’s not in favor of reducing U.S. F-35 purchases.

The United States will press forward with ending Turkey’s role in producing parts for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Air Force secretary nominee Frank Kendall said at his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday. 

Turkey was officially kicked out of the F-35 program in 2019 under the Trump administration for agreeing to purchase Russia’s S-400 air defense system in 2017. U.S. officials had repeatedly warned the purchase would jeopardize Turkey’s role in the multinational fighter program because operating both systems could expose F-35 vulnerabilities to Russia. 

The Biden administration had renewed efforts to try and get Turkey to reverse course as recently as this March, but Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told Secretary of State Anthony Blinken the purchase was a “done deal,” Voice of America reported. 

Turkey is also banned from obtaining any of the fighters it had previously ordered.  

“Under the current situation with Turkey, I think we should not be making F-35 parts in Turkey,” Kendall said, telling Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., that if confirmed he would see that the production is halted as soon as possible. 

Turkey is a member of NATO, and the potential integration of the S-400 platform into the alliance’s defense architecture had concerned other member countries.

The U.S. is scheduled to halt manufacturing in Turkey for F-35 engine and fuselage components in 2022. 

During the hearing, lawmakers pressed Kendall on many other aspects of the F-35 program. The fighter’s rising sustainment costs and recent upgrade challenges have driven a renewed debate as to whether the total buy should be curtailed. 

Kendall, who previously served as the acquisition undersecretary in the Obama administration, hinted he is not in favor of a cut to F-35 procurement, even though the Air Force is in the middle of a tactical fighter study to determine if a different fleet makeup that relied on additional 4th-generation fighters might better meet their needs. 

“The key to keeping the costs down in an airfleet is getting the numbers up,” Kendall said. “There’s a very strong correlation between the size of the fleet and the cost to sustain that fleet. So if there were one thing that I think would drive costs down, it’s continuing to buy. I know there’s an issue with the total number, it’s been on the table for some years,” Kendall said. “My own view is we’re a little short of that number.” 

Kendall acknowledged the challenges ahead for either recapitalizing or replacing the E4-B 747 “doomsday” nuclear command and control aircraft that are nearing the end of their useful life, and said he will refocus on how to bridge the service’s 2,000-pilot shortage.   

The committee also considered the nominations of Heidi Shyu to serve as the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering and Susanna Blume to be director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation at the Pentagon.