Responding to S-400 deal, U.S. halts Turkish pilots’ F-35 training

The U.S. military has grounded the six Turkish pilots who had been training on the advanced F-35 fighter jet in response to Turkey’s looming receipt of Russia’s S-400 missile defence system, Foreign Policy reported on Monday.

U.S. officials have repeatedly stated that the Russian-made S-400 is incompatible with NATO systems and warned NATO-ally Turkey, which is expected to take delivery of the S-400 in July, of sanctions as well as expulsion from the F-35 programme.

Brigadier General Todd Canterbury last week grounded the two Turkish instructors and four students who had been training at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, cutting off their access to the so-called vault, which holds state secrets and classified information, according to Foreign Policy.

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Mike Andrews confirmed that the Turkish pilots are no longer flying. “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 told Foreign Policy.

Washington has given Ankara until July 31 to pull out of its deal with Moscow or face total expulsion from the F-35 programme, including the departure of Turkish Air Force personnel from the United States.

The Pentagon portrayed the grounding as an “operational pause,” so that if Turkey does pull out of the S-400 before July 31, 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,” said Foreign Policy.

Experts told the U.S. magazine that U.S. sanctions could undermine Turkey’s already fragile economy as well as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s popularity as his party heads toward the Istanbul mayoral rerun election later this month.

Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the S-400 deal highlighted Ankara’s pivot away from the West and toward Moscow.

“This sets Turkey on a dangerous trajectory, and it will make the Turkish military more prone to Russian meddling,” he told FP.