The US Department of Defense stopped training flights on the F-35 for Turkish pilots at the US air base in Arizona, Reuters reported on June 11th.
“The department is aware that the Turkish pilots at Luke AFB are not flying,” Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Mike Andrews, a Pentagon spokesman, told Reuters. “Without a change in Turkish policy, we will continue to work closely with our Turkish ally on winding down their participation in the F-35 program.”
The policy in question is Turkey’s purchase of S-400 missile defense systems from Russia and it sending personnel to be trained on using it.
According to an unnamed US official, a local commander at the Luke airbase decided to halt training for the Turkish pilots.
According to media reports, on June 6th, US Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan sent a letter to Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar saying that all Turkish pilots in the program must leave the U.S. by July 31 and training for new pilots will be suspended.
The U.S. has already suspended deliveries of parts and services related to Turkey’s receipt of the fighter jets.
“You still have the option to change course on the S-400,” Shanahan said in the letter.
There are currently 42 Turkish military personnel training at Luke and Eglin — four pilots, and the rest maintainers. The July 31 deadline would allow 28 of them to complete their training, but the remainder would be sent home before their training naturally concluded, according to information attached to Shanahan’s letter.
Turkish Defense Ministry released a statement in response to Shanahan’s letter on June 8.
“A letter was sent by US Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan to Turkish National Defense Minister Hulusi Akar. Covering defense and security issues between the two countries, the letter expresses the expectation of finding a solution to the existing problems within the framework of strategic partnership and maintaining the comprehensive security cooperation and emphasizes the importance of continuing negotiations,” the statement said.
The US wants Turkey to purchase the Patriot missile system rather than the S-400, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the US hasn’t given Turkey an “offer as good as the S-400s.”
In an off-camera press briefing on June 7th, officials from the US Department of Defense spoke about the Turkey S-400 issue. Under Secretary of Defense Ellen Lord and Andy Winternitz, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO spoke to reporters.
Ellen Lord had the following to say:
“The United States greatly values the U.S.-Turkey dialogue and our strategic partnership. However, the United States was disappointed to learn that Turkey sent personnel to Russia for training on the S-400 system. The S-400 is incompatible with the F-35. As we have very clearly communicated at all levels, Turkey will not receive the F-35 if Turkey takes delivery of the S-400 system. Thus, we need to begin unwinding Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program.”
The winding down would happen in an orderly manner, so as not to cause any heavy disruptions.
“To facilitate an orderly cessation of Turkish participation in the programmatic management activities of the F-35 program, Turkey will not participate in the annual F-35 Chief Executive Officer Roundtable on June 12th, and planned updates to the program’s governing documents will proceed without Turkey’s participation. If the United States and Turkey cannot reach a mutually-agreeable resolution to this issue by July 31, all Turkish F-35 students and instructor pilots currently in the United States will be required to depart the country.”
According to Andy Winternitz, July 31st was not the date when the entire F-35 program would end for Turkey, but rather when it would start unwinding.
“But obviously, the United States greatly values the U.S.-Turkey relationship. It’s a strategic relationship. They are our ally, and our relationship is multi-layered. We’re doing a lot of things with Turkey across the — the entire spectrum of our — of our security relationship, and — and that’s — and that will not end at all. That won’t be influenced, we hope, by what’s going on right now with the S-400 and the F-35.”
Reporters also asked who Turkey would feel threatened by when it’s a part of NATO and its principle enemy was the Soviet Union and now Russia.
My question is, in all the discussions with the Turks over the S-400s and their needs, their anti-missile defense needs, have the Turks ever identified or suggested who they feel the threat is likely to come from? I ask this because NATO is designed, of course, to combat the Soviet Union and Russia. And so to — to me, it’s — it seems a little puzzling that the — the logical threat to them would come from Russia or an ally of Russia, yet they’re relying on a Russian system. Have you ever talked about who they thought the threat was going to come from?
Winternitz: Well, hey, listen, Turkey’s obviously in a — in a very tough neighborhood, and so they — I think they face threats from a — from a number of places, and — but they have — they’ve identified this as a security need. And we have — we are willing to discuss with them a solution that does not involve the S-400 as — as soon as they’re ready to discuss that — you know, that with us.”