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 defense 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.
Ankara said on Tuesday a US House of Representatives’ resolution condemning Ankara’s purchase of Russian defence systems and urging potential sanctions was unacceptably threatening.
The resolution, introduced in May and entitled “Expressing concern for the United States-Turkey alliance”, was agreed in the House on Monday.
It urges Turkey to cancel the S-400 purchase and calls for sanctions if it accepts their delivery, which may come as soon as July.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week 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.