A fighter pilot sits in the cockpit while a crew member checks the exterior of a Lockheed Martin Corp. F-35A jet before a training flight in Hill Air Force Base, Utah, U.S. (Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg)

Pentagon Is Delaying Delivery of F-35s Used to Train Turkish Pilots, Officials Say

(Bloomberg) -- The Pentagon is delaying delivery of two F-35 fighter jets intended to help train Turkish pilots at an Arizona base because of Turkey’s plan to buy a Russian missile defense system, according to U.S. defense officials.

The advanced fighters, built by Lockheed Martin Corp., were to join two F-35s previously delivered to Luke Air Force Base for pilot training before the planes were supposed to be sent to Turkey.

The U.S. has vigorously protested Turkey’s plan to buy the S-400 defense system from Moscow, with Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan calling it “incompatible” with the sale to Turkey of the F-35. The U.S. has sought to persuade Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to buy the U.S. Patriot defense system instead.

The U.S. “has been clear that Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 is unacceptable,” Charles Summers Jr., a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement late Monday afternoon.

The Russian S-400 was designed to shoot down U.S. and allied aircraft at greater ranges and altitudes than older systems. U.S. officials have said they’re concerned that sensitive F-35 technology designed to evade such a system could be compromised and used to improve the Russian air defense system if Turkey takes possession of both systems.

Turkey, a member of NATO, is a crucial participant in the U.S.-led program to build the F-35, the U.S.’s costliest weapons system. Ten Turkish companies have been set to produce about $12 billion in parts for the fighter jet, including key components such as the center fuselage and some landing gear.

Turkey has planned to buy about 100 F-35s, joining Japan, the U.K. and Australia as the top international customers for the plane from Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed.

“We very much regret the current situation facing our F-35 partnership with Turkey, and the DoD is taking prudent steps to protect the shared investments made in our critical technology,” Summers said in the statement. “Our important dialogue on this matter will continue. However, until they forgo delivery of the S-400, the United States has suspended deliveries and activities associated with the stand-up of Turkey’s F-35 operational capability. Should Turkey procure the S-400, their continued participation in the F-35 program is at risk.”

Turkey’s move to buy the S-400 reflects a broader political shift as Erdogan finds himself increasingly at odds with the U.S. and intent as well on cultivating relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat and a member of the Armed Services Committee, praised the Pentagon’s decision but said it doesn’t go far enough.

“Though Turkey is an important U.S. ally, their close relationship with Putin and persistent efforts to acquire the Russian S-400 air defense system could seriously compromise our national security,” Shaheen said in a statement.

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