The United States has stopped the training of Turkish pilots on F-35 fighters at an airbase in Arizona, US officials said, as Washington winds down Ankara’s involvement in the programme over Turkey’s plans to buy a Russian air defence system.
The move at Luke Air Force Base comes faster than expected, days after acting US Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan told his Turkish counterpart that their pilots who were already in the country could remain there until the end of July.
The US gave Ankara a July deadline to make its decision over Russian S-400 missile system. That would have allowed time for more training and for Turkey to rethink its plans.
Washington says Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 air defence system poses a threat to the Lockheed Martin Corp’s F-35 stealthy fighters, which Ankara also plans to buy.
Washington says Turkey cannot have both.
“The department is aware that the Turkish pilots at Luke AFB are not flying,” Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Mike Andrews, a Pentagon spokesman, told the Reuters news agency.
“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 programme.”
A second US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that a local commander at Luke decided last week to halt the training of Turkish pilots and maintenance crews over safety concerns.
Some training of Turkish maintenance personnel continues at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, the official said.
Turkey is a partner in the F-35 programme that helped fund the development of the fighter. It plans to buy some 100 jets and already owns four of them, which are currently on the American soil and used for training purposes.
Strains in US-Turkish ties already extend beyond the F-35 to include conflicting strategy in Syria, sanctions on Iran and the detention of US consular staff in Turkey.
Reuters on Thursday reported a US decision to stop accepting more Turkish pilots from entering the country for training, in what had been one of the most concrete signs that the dispute over the F-35 fighters was reaching a breaking point.
Turkey seemed to be moving ahead with the S-400 purchase, regardless of the US warnings.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday it was “out of the question” for Turkey to back away from its deal with Moscow.
Erdogan said the US had not “given us an offer as good as the S-400s”.
Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on May 22 that Turkish military personnel were receiving training in Russia on how to use the S-400 and that Russian personnel might go to Turkey.
The US offered to sell Turkey the American-made Patriot missile defence system earlier this year, following Ankara sealed the S-400 deal with Russia.
Turkey says the delivery of Patriots would take a long time and the deal does not include joint production of the missile system. Officials in Ankara say Turkey will carry out joint production of S-400 missiles with Russia in line with their deal.
The US says that S-400s are incompatible with the F-35. Officials also say that proximity between the S-400 and the F-35 could threaten the programme’s security.
The head of Russia’s state-owned conglomerate Rostec said last week that Moscow would begin delivering the S-400 air defence systems to Turkey.
“Everything is on track with the Turks. I hope that we will begin to deliver in about two months,” Sergey Chemezov told Turkish media on Friday.
“The credit money has been spent, the technology was produced. And we completed training of all the military personnel,” he said.