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US-Turkey missile friction continues to simmer

The row between Washington and Ankara regarding Turkey’s plan to purchase Russian S-400 missile systems has been soaring with two new moves by the United States (US).

The US military has halted a US-based training program for Turkish pilots on the F-35 fighter jets, following last week’s warning from the US State Department which gave Ankara until July 31 to cancel the Russian deal for the S-400 missile defense system, Foreign Policy magazine reported on Tuesday, citing two US defense officials.

Last week, acting US Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan wrote an official letter to his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar threatening measures the country would take against Ankara if it goes ahead with the S-400 deal.

The letter vowed that Turkey would be suspended from participation in the F-35 program as of July 31, unless it withdraws from the deal with Russia.

Consequently, the Turkish trainees in the US – at Luke Air Force Base (AFB) in Arizona and Eglin AFB in Florida – would be sent back to their countries and Turkey would not be able to use the four jets it has already received.

The US warning turned real a week later when the F-35 training came to a halt at Luke AFB in Arizona. The Turkish pilots were barred from using and accessing the aircraft.

Brigadier General Todd Canterbury grounded the two Turkish instructors and four students, cutting off their access to the vault, which holds state secrets and classified information.

Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Mike Andrews confirmed the halt.

“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,” Andrews said.

The US officials say that the pilots could continue their training, if Turkey backs away from the S-400 prior to July 31.  

At Luke AFB, there were four Turkish pilots and 47 personnel undergoing training on how to maintain the fifth-generation F-35 jets, with four having already completed the course. Turkey planned to deploy the first batch of fighters by November.

US House approves resolution for potential sanctions

On Monday, a resolution entitled Expressing concern for the US-Turkey alliance was taken at the US House of Representatives, condemning Ankara’s purchase of S-400 systems and urging potential sanctions.

The resolution emphasized the historic alliance with Turkey and urged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to avoid a military relationship with Russia.

It is believed such an alliance could jeopardize Turkey’s role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), as well as its partnership with the US.

“We rarely see it in foreign affairs, but this is a black and white issue. There is no middle ground,” said Eliot L. Engel, Representative, and Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, on the House Floor on Monday.

The agreed resolution called for full implementation of sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) if Turkey acquires the Russian S-400 system.

In response to the House’s move, Ankara said in a press release on Tuesday that it finds the resolution unacceptably threatening.

“It is unacceptable to take decisions that are not binding and that do not serve to build mutual confidence, keeping the language of threat and sanctions on agenda and setting some artificial deadlines,” the statement read.

What lies behind the US-Turkey controversy?

The two NATO allies have been at odds with each other regarding Ankara’s demands that the US extradite Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen, as well as differences over Middle East policy and the war in Syria, sanctions on Iran and Turkey’s plans for oil and gas research drilling off Cyprus.

Tensions have reached fever pitch in recent months with Ankara set to begin receiving the advanced Russian surface-to-air missile system that is due for delivery in July, according to a report by Reuters citing Yury Ushakov, a Kremlin aide.

The US, along with several NATO member countries that are part of the F-35 program has said Turkey’s plan to buy the S-400s would harm the NATO’s interoperability and compromise the security of the F-35 aircraft.

They fear the radar on the missile defense system will have the ability to spot and track the F-35 fighter jet, exposing it to possible Russian subterfuge.

Therefore, they insist on Turkey’s purchase of NATO-approved weapons systems. Turkey, however, argues that it has a sovereign right to diversify its defense suppliers.

Turkish officials claim the S-400s poses no risk to either the F-35 program or the NATO systems as they would not be integrated into NATO operability.

In an effort to alleviate the US and NATO over security concerns, Turkey proposed creating a technical committee to assess security threats caused by the S-400s in a bid to diminish the US-NATO concerns. Washington, however, is yet to reply to Turkey’s committee proposal.

The US administration advised Turkey to buy its Patriot missile system instead of the Russian’s. The US had offered Turkey the more expensive Patriot anti-missile system at a discount that expired at the end of March, on conditions of dropping its plans to purchase the S-400s.

Some officials from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) claimed the S-400 deal with Russia came after the US refusal to sell the US-made Patriot missile system to Ankara, adding Moscow’s offer was even better since it included technology transfers.

Ankara was also threatened by Washington to be removed from its F-35 program, a fighter jet made by Lockheed Martin Corp. Turkey is both a buyer and a production partner of the F-35 fighter aircraft.

Ankara has invested $1.25 billion into the trillion-dollar F-35 program, producing parts of the fuselage, landing gear and cockpit displays for the jets. Given its significant role in developing the fighter, Turkey continues to insist that all 100 units it had purchased must be delivered.

Ahead of his visit to Washington on June 14, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that if the US does not provide Turkey with the F-35s, they could ‘meet their needs from elsewhere,’ referring to Russia’s Su-57 jets and China’s J-31s.

According to the US media reports, the US is also looking for alternatives in case Turkey is removed from the F-35 program.

Ismail Demir, head of the Turkish Defence Industries Directorate, said on Monday that they are currently drafting a response to Shanahan’s letter of last week.

Russia plans to send S-400s to Turkey in July

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