Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan notified his Turkish counterpart on Thursday that the U.S. will stop training Turkish pilots and ground crew for the F-35 fighter jet, and will freeze all aspects of Turkish participation in the F-35 program if Ankara moves forward with its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system. While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is eyeing a deal with Donald Trump, whereby Ankara can operate both the S-400 and the F-35, the Pentagon’s move sends a clear message that it opposes Turkey having both systems.
Turkey’s intent to purchase the Russian S-400s, a system designed to target NATO aircraft like the F-35, prompted U.S. lawmakers to prevent the delivery of F-35 jets to Turkey last year. Still, 42 Turkish students have continued training to fly and maintain the fighter jets at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona and Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, with another 34 set to arrive by November. On June 6, however, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan sent a letter to his Turkish counterpart, notifying Ankara that all 42 trainees were expected to leave by July 31, while other aspects of Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program would be frozen on that date.
The Pentagon’s decision comes amidst Erdogan’s efforts to convince Trump to bypass Congress and ignore his advisers’ warnings of the risks involved in allowing Turkey to possess both systems. Last week, shortly after a phone call between the two presidents, a Turkish court unexpectedly released Serkan Golge, a Turkish-American NASA scientist, who had been imprisoned on farcical charges for two years. Trump welcomed Golge’s release, and Ankara boasted that the two presidents would meet on the sidelines of the upcoming G-20 summit in Japan. The next day, Turkish officials leaked to Middle East Eye and Bloomberg that Trump had agreed to Erdogan’s longstanding request that the U.S. and Turkey establish a “working group” to resolve technical issues related to the co-location of the S-400 and F-35 in Turkey.
The Pentagon could reverse the suspension of Turkish training at U.S. airbases if Turkey walks away from the S-400 deal, Shanahan’s letter says. By then, however, the damage to U.S.-Turkish security cooperation may have already been done. As Turkish pilots are being pushed out of the United States, around 100 Turkish servicemen – alongside their Chinese counterparts – are in Russia training on the S-400. Meanwhile the expected delivery of S-400s to Turkey in two months could also trigger sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which prohibits significant transactions with the Russian defense sector.
As Erdogan banks on his personal rapport with Trump to avoid both potential CAATSA sanctions and the denial of F-35s to Turkey, the Pentagon’s suspension of Turkish training for the F-35 is a cold reminder that the U.S. military considers Turkish possession of both the F-35 and S-400 to be a serious national security threat. In the long run, Erdogan risks Turkish access to American hardware, partnerships, and training as he exposes his country to further Russian dependence and meddling.
Aykan Erdemir is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Merve Tahiroglu is a research analyst. They also contribute to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). Follow Aykan and Merve on Twitter @aykan_erdemir and @MerveTahiroglu. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.