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US to cut off F-35 pilot training with Turkey in warning against buying from Russia

U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo honor guards during a welcome ceremony at the Defence Ministry headquarters in Seoul, South Korea, on June 3, 2019. (Young-ho Lee/Sipa USA/TNS)

The Pentagon warned Turkey that it will suspend training of its pilots on the advanced F-35 fighter jet at the end of July and terminate Turkey’s participation in the fighter jet program if it pursues the purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, in a letter sent Thursday to Turkey’s minister of defense Hulusi Akar, said Turkish pilots currently training at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona would have time to complete their flight training by July 31, but that no new students would be accepted.

In addition, Turkey’s participation in the program, such as producing hundreds of parts that make up the F-35s fuselage and engines, would be phased out. The Pentagon said the phase-out would occur over time so as not to disrupt the F-35 production line, but would be completed by early 2020.

“All actions taken on the F-35 are based on risks the S-400 presence in Turkey would have,” Shanahan wrote to his Turkish counterpart.

Four F-35’s that Turkey has purchased are still in U.S. custody at Luke AFB and will not be transferred to Turkey at this time, a defense official told McClatchy.

The Pentagon is considering how to proceed on those four aircraft, for example whether Turkey would be reimbursed for the jets, which now cost roughly $90 million each. “We are under discussions internally as to how to deal with the four aircraft they have already taken delivery on,” said Ellen Lord, under secretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment.

There are currently 42 Turkish pilots participating in F-35 flight training at Luke, the Pentagon said. Thirty-four of them may be able to complete their training by the July deadline, but if not, their access will be cut off.

“All Turkish personnel, including 2 instructor pilots, in the U.S. related to the F-35 program will be required to depart the country July 31, 2019. At this point, all Invitational Travel Orders (ITOs) and/or Common Access Cards (CACs) will be canceled, and Turkish Air Force personnel will be prohibited from entering Luke AFB or Eglin AFB and applicable buildings,” the Pentagon said.

The United States has warned Turkey repeatedly that it would not allow the transfer of the advanced fighter jet, which is produced by Fort Worth, Texas-based Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, to Turkey if it moved forward with buying Russia’s S-400 missile defense system. U.S. officials worry that if Turkey uses the Russian missile defense system in conjunction with the F-35, it could result in some of the fighter jet’s classified capabilities or vulnerabilities being revealed to potential U.S. adversaries.

“We do not want to have the F-35 in close proximity to the S-400 for a length of time, because of the ability to understand the profile of the F-35,” Lord said.

The Pentagon also said that the ongoing suspension of sending any F-35 support equipment to Turkey would continue, and that the United States would begin to look at alternate sources to supply the F-35 components Turkey has been producing as a partner in the program.

Lord said Turkey provides 937 parts for the F-35, 400 of which were sole-sourced. The Pentagon is now working with Lockheed on finding replacement supply sources for parts on the airframe, and Pratt & Whitney for substitute supply lines for the engines.

The United States will continue to conduct military training exercises with Turkey. The extended time frame for when the Turkish pilots would have to leave the United States was intended to leave the door open for the Turkish government to change course. However it was unclear whether U.S. F-35 jets would be sent to conduct training exercises with Turkey if it completes its acquisition of the Russian missile defense system.


© 2019 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.