The Defense Ministry is working on a response to a letter by acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, which outlined how Turkey would be pulled out of the F-35 fighter jet program if it carries out the Russian S-400 missile defense systems deal.
Speaking to reporters in the capital Ankara, İsmail Demir, the head of the Presidency of Defense Industries said Monday that the letter was addressed to the Defense Ministry.
"They are working on it in coordination with us. We will respond because the arguments there have answers from our side. This communication will continue," he said.
The U.S. said Friday it would halt new pilot training on the F-35 fighter jet program with Turkey. Shanahan said all Turkish pilots in the program must leave the U.S. by July 31 and training for new pilots will be suspended, according to a letter sent to Defense Minister Hulusi Akar.
The timetable would allow pilots currently training on the F-35 to complete their training and for other pilots to be reassigned to other posts, Shanahan said. Four Turkish pilots are currently training at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. Two additional Turkish pilots are at the U.S. base working as instructors.
In addition to the six Turkish officers, there are an additional 20 Turkish aircraft technicians at the base undergoing training as well, according to the U.S. military.
Shanahan's remarks are the latest in a set of moves by the U.S. to try to remove Turkey from the F-35 program amid a standoff with its NATO ally over the purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system.
Tension between the U.S. and Turkey has reached a fever pitch in recent months with Ankara set to begin receiving the advanced Russian surface-to-air missile system in two months. The U.S. has already suspended deliveries of parts and services related to Turkey's receipt of the multi-million-dollar jets.
"You still have the option to change course on the S-400," Shanahan said in the letter.
Regarding the S-400 deliveries, Demir noted yesterday that Turkey maintained a clear position on the S-400s.
"In this sense, if there is a technical concern on the U.S. side about the presence of S-400s, we have repeatedly emphasized that we are ready to discuss the issue," he said.
"The United States has not moved to create a joint working group to assess its concerns regarding Turkey's purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense systems," Demir continued. "We have repeated many times that we are ready for this."
The disclosure of the decision on the pilots follows signs that Turkey is moving ahead with the S-400 purchase. Akar said on May 22 that Turkish military personnel were receiving training in Russia to use the S-400s, and that Russian personnel may come to Turkey.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said last Tuesday it was "out of the question" for Turkey to back out of its deal with Moscow.
Following protracted efforts to purchase an air defense system from the U.S. with no success, Ankara decided in 2017 to purchase Russia's system.
U.S. officials advised Turkey to buy the U.S. Patriot missile system rather than the S-400 system from Moscow, arguing it would be incompatible with NATO systems and expose the F-35s to possible Russian subterfuge. But Turkey has emphasized the S-400 would not be integrated into NATO operations and would not pose a threat to the alliance.
Ankara said that it was Washington's initial refusal to sell the Patriot missile system that led it to seek other offers, adding that Russia offered a better deal that included technology transfers. President Erdoğan said last week that the U.S. had yet to give Turkey an "offer as good as the S-400s."
Commenting on the Patriot missile system negotiations, Demir said, "We have given our answer, and we are waiting for theirs."
He further explained the status of Turkish companies working on the F-35 program.
"In fact, the two issues are intermingled. I do not know if this is intentional or due to ignorance. First, there is a claim that the presence of the F-35 and S-400 together in Turkey poses a risk. We say that we are ready to discuss this claim. The second is Turkey's program partnership. We cannot relate this to the S-400 purchase," he said. "Because the decisions and steps to be taken regarding Turkey's program partnership have no explanation from our side. We will confer."
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