Lockheed Martin on Thursday delivered its first F-35 stealth fighter jet to Turkey, despite objections from some in Congress over Turkey's detention of a U.S. pastor and its plan to buy a Russian air defense system.
The F-35A Lightning II emblazoned with the star and crescent from the Turkish flag was unveiled at Lockheed Martin's sprawling Fort Worth plant in front of about 1,000 spectators, who also enjoyed Turkish traditional folk music and dancing.
"We are not just purchasing weapons from the United States, or selling weapons to the United States. We are partners to the United States," Serdar Demirel, Turkey deputy undersecretary for defense industries, told the crowd. "We hope our partnership will continue."
The Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act approved this week expressed opposition to Turkey's purchase of a Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system, and its detention of U.S. pastor Andre Brunson.
But it's not yet known what form of the bill might clear the House and wind up on President Trump's desk.
Meanwhile, the first and second F-35s built for Turkey are headed to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. Turkish pilots and maintenance workers will train on the aircraft for many months before taking them to the country, which straddles Europe and Asia and has long been considered a key U.S. ally.
Several Turkish contractors including Turkish Aerospace Industries Inc., play crucial roles in assembling parts for the F-35, said Doug Wilhelm, Lockheed vice president for the F-35 program.
About 30 percent of center fuselages installed on F-35s are built in Turkey, he said. Also, Turkish contractors play a prominent role in building components of the landing gear, forward fuselage, the electronics used by the pilot and some of the aircraft's composite skin, he said.
"Over the years, the Republic of Turkey has been a valuable ally for NATO, the United States and the cause of global security," Marillyn Hewson, Lockheed Martin chairman, president and chief executive officer, told the crowd Thursday.
Plans call for Lockheed Martin to build at least two more planes for Turkey soon — and long-term, Turkey wishes to buy up to 100 of the stealth fighter jets.
On Thursday, some Senate members inserted language in an amendment that would prohibit the transfer of the F-35s to Turkey unless the secretary of state's office certifies that Turkey has not gone through with plans to buy the Russian S-400 air defense system. But that language could be difficult to enforce, given that Turkey was among nine nations who partnered beginning in 1999 to build the fifth-generation fighter aircraft.
The F-35 is believed to be among just a handful of military weapons that get past the Russian S-400 anti-aircaft missiles.
The controversy over Turkey's courting of Russia seemed to put a bit of a damper on Thursday's proceedings, although none of the dignitaries or guest speakers spoke aloud about it.
In March, when an F-35 was delivered to South Korea, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn was among several dignitaries in attendance.
U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth is also often a frequent guest at such presentations.
But on Thursday, no members of Congress were introduced to the crowd. Dignitaries in attendance included Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, and state Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, whose district includes the southwest part of the city.
Other nations joining the United States and Turkey as partners in the F-35 program include the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway.
Lockheed Martin F-35s have also been sold to other countries, including Israel, Japan and South Korea.