Air Force halts Turkish F-35 pilot training amid 'safety' concerns

Air Force halts Turkish F-35 pilot training amid 'safety' concerns
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The Pentagon has put on hold a training program to teach Turkish pilots how to fly the F-35 fighter jet, less than a week after the Defense Department announced a plan to “unwind” the NATO ally’s participation in the program, a department spokesman has confirmed.

Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., has pulled 26 Turkish military personnel from the training program, a direct connection to U.S. concerns over Ankara’s plan to the Russian-made  S-400 surface-to-air missile defense system, Foreign Policy first reported.

Lt. Col. Mike Andrews told The Hill that “the department is aware” that Turkish pilots are no longer flying at Luke Air Force Base.

“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. This disengagement plan is completely reversible if Turkey chooses to forego delivery of the S-400,” Andrews said.

U.S. government officials are concerned that if Turkey operates both the American-made advanced fighter jet and the Russian missile system, Moscow will gain a backdoor into highly guarded technical information on the F-35.

Turkey for months has refused to back down on its plans to buy the Russian system, prompting acting Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanNew Defense chief: Our 'priorities remain unchanged' The Hill's Morning Report - Crunch time arrives for 2020 Dems with debates on deck Trump urged to quickly fill Pentagon post amid Iran tensions MORE to last week send a letter to Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, laying out the Pentagon’s intent to suspend Ankara’s participation in the F-35 program by July 31 if the nation takes delivery of the S-400.

“While we seek to maintain our valued relationship, Turkey will not receive the F-35 if Turkey takes delivery of the S-400,” Shanahan wrote.

Shanahan added that the Pentagon would reverse its decision if Turkey changes course and decides not to buy the Russian system.

A department official familiar with the matter said Luke’s 56th Wing commander, Brig. Gen. Todd Canterbury, made the “operational pause decision” on Friday.

“The commander was focused on safety, which is what we rely on commanders to do,” they said.

The official added that there was no intent to counter Shanahan's letter, which stated that Turkish pilots would be allowed to continue training at the base up until the July deadline.

Turkish military personnel are also training to be F-35 foreign maintainers at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., but that mechanical training is still ongoing.

“They’re still continuing to train as they are actually in a classroom setting and do not have access to classified data,” Andrews said.