The United States has decided to stop accepting any additional Turkish pilots who planned to come to the United States to train on F-35 fighter jets, US officials told Reuters on Thursday, the latest in a clear sign of the escalating dispute over Ankara’s plans to purchase Russian air defenses.
The two countries have sparred publicly for months over Turkey’s deal with Russia to purchase the S-400 air defense missile system.
Washington says the S-400 poses a threat to the Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 stealthy fighters, which Turkey also plans to buy.
The US also believes the S-400 sale is part of Russian efforts to disrupt the alliance amid Western concern over Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's burgeoning relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The two US officials, who spoke to Reuters 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 come to the United States.
The Trump administration recently asked Ankara to postpone receiving the advanced missile-defense system which was set for July, and sources indicated two weeks ago that Turkey was considering the request.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar later said that Turkish military personnel were receiving training in Russia to use the S-400, and said Russian personnel may come to Turkey.
Last week, Akar denied claims that the US gave Turkey a deadline to reconsider buying the S-400 air defense missile systems from Russia.
There has not yet been a formal decision to halt the training of the Turkish pilots and maintenance crews now at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, the sources said. Still, Reuters reported last week that the step was being seriously considered.
Four Turkish pilots are currently training at Luke. Two additional Turkish pilots are at the US base working as instructors. Beyond those six Turkish officers, there are an additional 20 Turkish aircraft maintainers at the base undergoing training as well, the US 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.
Turkish officials insist that the deal to purchase the S-400 does not affect the security of the US and have stressed that they will go ahead with the deal despite Washington’s objections.
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.