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Pentagon Chief to Suspend Turkey’s F-35 Pilot Training

Turkish pilots training in the United States must leave by July 31, as Ankara refuses to ditch a Russian missile system.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with F-35 fighter plane pilot Lt. Col. Jason Curtis as he tours Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix on Oct. 19, 2018.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with F-35 fighter plane pilot Lt. Col. Jason Curtis as he tours Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix on Oct. 19, 2018. NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan is taking significant steps toward cutting Turkey out of the F-35 fighter jet program over concerns about Ankara’s plans to purchase a Russian missile system, telling his Turkish counterpart that pilots currently training in the United States must leave the country by July 31 and halting training for new students.

Turkey can still change its mind on purchasing the S-400 missile system, which is expected to arrive on Turkish soil as soon as this month, and the steps regarding F-35 training will be reversed, a senior U.S. defense official told Foreign Policy

The United States has already halted delivery of F-35 materials and related equipment to Turkey. Without the training provided by the U.S. military, future Turkish F-35 pilots will not be able to operate the jet, which will provide the bulk of tactical airpower for the United States and many of its allied militaries for decades to come.

In the meantime, Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program will be suspended as of July 31. In a letter signed June 6 to Hulusi Akar, Turkey’s defense minister, Shanahan told Ankara that the 42 Turkish students attending F-35 training at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona and Eglin Air Force Base in Florida will be required to depart by that date. At this point, all international travel orders will be cancelled, and Turkish Air Force personnel will be prohibited from entering the bases.

If Turkey, however, receives the S-400 before July 31, this “deliberate and measured” approach will be “greatly accelerated,” said Ellen Lord, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, at the Pentagon on Friday.

Turkey’s decision to send personnel to Russia to train on the S-400 was one of the main drivers for the decision, said Andrew Winternitz, the acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO.

Two U.S. defense officials confirmed that Shanahan signed the letter and submitted it to Turkey. Foreign Policy reviewed a detailed list of actions attached to the letter stipulating the steps the United States is planning to take if Turkey moves forward with purchasing the S-400, which U.S. officials say poses a threat to the F-35 and NATO air defenses.

A third U.S. defense official said the steps laid out in the document had been discussed in a prior phone call between the two defense ministers. 

The U.S. Department of Defense has repeatedly warned Turkey over the past year that the purchase of the S-400 would result in the suspension of Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program, and it offered Ankara an alternate to the Russian system, Raytheon’s Patriot missile system. U.S. officials say the integration of the S-400 with the F-35 and NATO air defenses could compromise closely guarded military secrets, providing Moscow the opportunity to collect valuable intelligence on the new stealth aircraft.

In the letter to Akar, released to reporters on Friday afternoon, Shanahan repeated a warning that Ankara’s decision to move forward with the sale will likely result in sanctions—an unusual measure for Washington to take against a NATO ally.

“There is strong bipartisan U.S. Congressional determination to see CAATSA sanctions imposed on Turkey if Turkey acquires the S-400,” Shanahan wrote, referring to the Russia-related Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.

Despite repeated threats of sanctions, Turkey has shown no signs of backing down.

The news comes at a tense time for U.S.-Turkish relations. Erdogan is still seething over U.S. support for the Kurdish groups in the fight against Syria and was likely further incensed by the delay in creating a buffer zone on the Syrian border. Meanwhile, Ankara must balance its relationship with the United States and NATO, which is the linchpin of its defense posture, with ties to Moscow.

But as Turkey inches closer to receiving the S-400, the Pentagon can no longer delay taking action. In addition to sending the existing students back to Turkey, training for the 34 Turkish students scheduled to arrive in the United States later this year—20 in June and 14 between July and November—will be suspended, according to the document.

“This training will not occur because we are suspending Turkey from the F-35 program; there are no longer requirements to gain proficiencies on the system,” according to the document.

Also, on July 31, Turkish Air Force personnel will no longer be permitted to enter facilities belonging to the F-35 Joint Program Office. The letter also mandates that Turkey reassign its personnel from the office by this date.

The United States also will not plan on Turkey participating in the next CEO roundtable, a meeting in which all program government and industry leaders come together to discuss the performance and direction of the program, which will take place on June 12.

In addition, Turkish industry will receive no further work on the program; its existing work will be transitioned to “alternative sources” as they are qualified, the document states.

Shanahan warned Akar in the letter about the economic impact of pursing the S-400, noting that procuring the system will “cause a loss in jobs, gross domestic product, and international trade.” He added that the imposition of CAATSA sanctions will likely impede President Donald Trump’s commitment to boost trade with Turkey from $20 billion to $75 billion.

“In addition to threatening the security of platforms like the F-35, Turkey’s procurement of the S-400 will hinder your nation’s ability to enhance or maintain cooperation with the United States and within NATO, lead to Turkish strategic and economic over-dependence on Russia, and undermine Turkey’s very capable defense industry and ambitious economic development goals,” Shanahan said.

Update, June 7, 2019: This article was updated to include comments from Ellen Lord, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, and Andrew Winternitz, the acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO, during a briefing at the Pentagon, as well as excerpts from acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan’s letter to his Turkish counterpart. 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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