The United States has decided to stop accepting any more Turkish pilots who had planned to train in the United States on F-35 fighter jets, three U.S. officials said, in a sign of an escalating dispute over Ankara’s plans to purchase Russian air defenses. The two NATO allies have sparred publicly for months over Turkey’s order for Russia’s S-400 air defense system, which Washington says poses a threat to the Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 stealthy fighters, which Turkey also plans to buy.
The United States says Turkey cannot have both, but had avoided taking steps to curtail or halt planned training of Turkish pilots in the program, a reprisal that could be seen as an embarrassment in Turkey.
The three U.S. officials, who spoke to Reuters this week on condition of anonymity, left open the possibility the decision could be reversed, perhaps if Turkey altered its plans. They said the decision so far only applied to upcoming rounds of Turkish pilots and maintenance crews who would have normally trained in the United States.
Reuters was first to report the U.S. decision on pilots, which traders said pressured the Turkish lira on Friday.
A spokesman for Turkey’s Defense Ministry declined comment on Friday.
The Pentagon declined comment on whether it would accept new Turkish pilots. But it has stressed discussions are taking place with Ankara on potentially selling Turkey Patriot missile defenses, which are made by Raytheon Co. In other words, Ankara is being blackmailed to purchase AA system that doesn’t work in exchange for training Turkish pilots.
The United States also has threatened to halt training of Turkish pilots and maintenance crews already in the United States, two of the officials said. Reuters reported last week that the step was being seriously considered.
One official said the pilots in the United States could be removed by the end of July.
Four Turkish pilots are currently training at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. Two additional Turkish pilots are there working as instructors. Beyond those six Turkish officers, there are an additional 20 Turkish aircraft maintainers at the base undergoing training as well, the U.S. military says.
Turkey has expressed an interest in buying 100 of the fighters, which would have a total value of $9 billion at current prices.