U.S. Grounds Turkish F-35 Pilots

Pilots no longer allowed to fly or access restricted information as spat over Russian missile defense system continues.

A Lockheed Martin crew chief signals to the F-35A Lightning II pilot that chocks have been placed, Feb. 4, 2019 at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Aspen Reid)
A Lockheed Martin crew chief signals to the F-35A Lightning II pilot that chocks have been placed, Feb. 4, 2019 at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Aspen Reid)

The U.S. military has grounded the Turkish pilots training on the F-35 fighter jet in the United States and cut off their access to the aircraft’s restricted information in anticipation of Turkey’s expulsion from the program over its plans to purchase a contentious Russian missile system.

The U.S. Defense Department last week formally gave Turkey a deadline of July 31 to scrap the deal for Russia’s S-400 missile system before cutting the NATO ally out of the F-35 program altogether. At that point, if Ankara does not change course, all Turkish Air Force personnel involved in the program must leave the United States.

But for the six Turkish pilots at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona—two instructors and four students—their access to the new American-made jet has already been cut off. Last week, Brig. Gen. Todd Canterbury, the wing commander, made the decision to immediately ground the pilots and restrict their access to the “vault,” which holds state secrets and classified materials, according to two U.S. defense officials.

Canterbury’s main concern was that continuing to allow the Turkish pilots access to the F-35’s most sensitive data—instruction manuals, for example—after the July 31 deadline was imposed would provide them an opportunity to take classified information out of the secure space, one official said.

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Mike Andrews confirmed that the Turkish pilots at Luke Air Force Base are no longer flying despite the July 31 deadline.

“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,” he said.

The grounding was billed as an “operational pause” so that if Turkey decides to scrap the S-400 at the last minute, the pilots could resume their training.

But that outcome does not look likely. The grounding is the latest sign of increasingly strained ties between Washington and Ankara amid ongoing tension over U.S. support for the Kurds in the fight in Syria and Turkey’s growing friendship with Russia. The U.S. government has signaled the spat over the S-400 could lead to sanctions, which experts say would have a dire effect on Turkey’s already fragile economy and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s popularity as he faces the prospect of his party losing the Istanbul mayoral election for a second time in a rerun later this month.

U.S. officials say the S-400, which is slated to arrive in the country as soon as this month, poses a threat to the F-35 itself, and the integration of the two systems could provide Moscow insight into closely guarded U.S. military secrets.

The decision to begin “unwinding” Turkey from the F-35 program was prompted in part by the discovery that Turkey had sent personnel to Russia to begin training on the S-400, said Andrew Winternitz, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO.

The Pentagon is in discussions with Turkey’s defense ministry over reimbursing Ankara for the cost of the aircraft it has already bought, said Ellen Lord, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment.

Defense Department officials stressed that they want to keep the F-35 versus S-400 dispute separate from broader cooperation on a range of issues with a key NATO ally. Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base is a critical launching point for the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism in the Middle East, and it’s home to U.S. nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, Turkey is also NATO’s southern flank against a threat from Russia.

However, experts note that Erdogan’s move to acquire the S-400 despite such strong opposition from Washington may signal the country’s broader pivot away from the trans-Atlantic alliance—toward Moscow.

“This sets Turkey on a dangerous trajectory, and it will make the Turkish military more prone to Russian meddling,” said Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


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

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