The United States is seriously considering halting the training of Turkish pilots on advanced F-35 fighter jets as Ankara moves ahead with plans to purchase a Russian missile defense system despite objections from Washington
The two NATO allies have argued for months over Turkey’s order for the Russian S-400 defenses, which Washington says are incompatible with the Western alliance’s defense network and would pose a threat to American F-35 stealth fighters which Turkey also plans to buy.
Turkish pilots have been training at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. It was unclear whether a decision to suspend their training would mean they would have to leave the country or would be allowed to remain at the base until a final decision is made about Turkey’s future in the F-35 program.
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If Turkey was removed from the program, it would be one of the most significant ruptures in recent history in the relationship between the two allies, experts say.
Terminating Turkish participation in the F-35 program poses considerable risks to the entire program, with no other client for around 150 jets likely to be forthcoming to receive the aircraft intended for Turkey and considering that sizeable investments have already been made in manufacturing many of the aircraft’s key components in the country. These components include parts of the F-35’s fuselage, landing gear and cockpit displays.
The Turkish Air Force has already received a number of F-35A jets, and the fate of these fighters should relations between Washington and Ankara further deteriorate also remains uncertain.
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Turkey’s decision to acquire the Russian S-400 surface to air missile system and signing of a $2.5 billion contract for the weapons platform in 2017 has led to repeated threats by the United States to impose serious penalties on the NATO member state should it proceed with the purchase – with similar threats also coming from European leaders.
Threats have included the imposition of economic sanctions on Ankara and termination of its participation in the F-35 fifth-generation fighter program, in which Turkey is a high-level partner.
The United States has warned that if Turkey takes delivery of the Russian system, it will also trigger U.S. sanctions under CATSAA, a law calling for sanctions against countries procuring military equipment from Russia.
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The Turkish Air Force was initially set to become the largest foreign operator of the F-35A, with a number of vertical landing F-35B jets also set to enter service in the Navy to provide the country with its first carrier-based fixed wing aircraft in its history.
The F-35A is a fifth-generation single-engine light fighter, and a direct successor to the F-16 Fighting Falcon of the previous generation of which the Turkish Air Force is currently also the largest operator.