(NEWSER) – In a major break with a longtime ally, the Trump administration on Wednesday said Turkey is being kicked out of an American-led fighter aircraft program because it is buying a Russian air defense system that would aid Russian intelligence. The decision has significant implications for the cohesion of NATO, whose central strategic purpose is to defend against Russian aggression. Now that NATO member Turkey has chosen to buy and deploy the Russian-made S-400 air defense, it will no longer be fully part of the alliance's air defenses, which are at the core of NATO strategy, the AP reports. The US government's concern is that the S-400 could be used to gather data on the capabilities of the F-35, and that the information could end up in Russian hands.
Pentagon officials sought to downplay the rift, noting that Turkey has been a key ally for more than six decades. "The U.S. still values our strategic partnership with Turkey," said Ellen Lord, the Pentagon's chief weapons buyer, who told a news conference that the US has suspended Turkey from the F-35 program and is beginning the process of its formal removal. Lord said Turkey stands to lose $9 billion in future earnings as an F-35 parts supplier. Army Secretary Mark Esper, Trump's nominee to become secretary of defense, told his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday he is troubled by Turkey's decision to defy the US on the S-400, suggesting that it reveals a broader strategic problem. "It is very disheartening to see how they have drifted over the past several years," Esper said.