By Lara Seligman
ISTANBUL (Foreign Policy) — The US military has grounded the Turkish pilots training on the F-35 fighter jet in the United States and cut off their access to the aircraft’s restricted information in anticipation of Turkey’s expulsion from the program over its plans to purchase a contentious Russian missile system.
The US Defense Department last week formally gave Turkey a deadline of July 31 to scrap the deal for Russia’s S-400 missile system before cutting the NATO ally out of the F-35 program altogether. At that point, if Ankara does not change course, all Turkish Air Force personnel involved in the program must leave the United States.
But for the six Turkish pilots at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona — two instructors and four students — their access to the new American-made jet has already been cut off. Last week, Brig. Gen. Todd Canterbury, the wing commander, made the decision to immediately ground the pilots and restrict their access to the “vault,” which holds state secrets and classified materials, according to two US defense officials.
Canterbury’s main concern was that continuing to allow the Turkish pilots access to the F-35’s most sensitive data — instruction manuals, for example — after the July 31 deadline was imposed would provide them an opportunity to take classified information out of the secure space, one official said.
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Mike Andrews confirmed that the Turkish pilots at Luke Air Force Base are no longer flying despite the July 31 deadline.