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US-Turkey military relations unchanged despite Russian weapons buy, Air Force chief says

Airmen assemble at a Spangdahlem Air Base hangar in Germany to meet Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein on Friday, July 19, 2019. Goldfein is a former wing commander at the base.

SLOBODAN LEKIC/STARS AND STRIPES

By SLOBODAN LEKIC | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 19, 2019

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany — U.S. Air Force operations are continuing normally at Incirlik Air Base even as Turkey’s acquisition of a sophisticated air defense system resulted in the NATO ally’s expulsion from the F-35 program, the service’s top general said Friday.

Asked whether he was concerned over the continuation of normal operations at Incirlik — a major U.S. base in southern Turkey near the border with Syria — due to the escalating dispute between Washington and Ankara, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein replied: “No.”

“Military-to-military relations have not really changed,” he said in an interview with Stars and Stripes. “That’s often the case as we work through the diplomatic and policy issues.”

The U.S. relationship with Turkey has been strained for several years in the wake of a 2016 attempted coup in the country and subsequent crackdowns on free speech. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government blamed the failed attempt on a U.S.-based cleric who denied involvement.

However, Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system has further complicated relations. Earlier this week, Turkey accepted delivery of the S-400 system, which will be based at Murted air base in Ankara.

In response, Washington announced that Turkey will no longer acquire or be part of the F-35 program. The Turkish air force had been planning to purchase more than 100 F-35s at a cost of about $11 billion as a key element of its modernization program.

Turkish air crews were training at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., until recently, when the Pentagon notified Ankara it would discontinue their training due to the Russian system purchase. However, the Air Force remains committed to a positive relationship with the Turkish airmen, Goldfein said.

“As a matter of fact, one of the things I’ve talked a couple of times to the commander of Luke Air Force Base where the Turks are flying is that we treat them with dignity, respect and professionally,” Goldfein said.

Luke Air Force Base trains 70% of the world’s F-35 pilots. The jet program includes participation from 12 nations, including Australia, Canada, multiple NATO allies, Japan and South Korea.

Turkey has denied suggestions that the Russians could glean information on the F-35 through joint U.S. operations involving the S-400 system, saying the two systems would not operate together. But Goldfein made clear that would not be an option.

“These are two computers,” Goldfein said. “The F-35 has got incredible computing capacity. The S-400 has also got a significant capacity. You don’t hook up these computers, it’s incompatible.”

Washington has also warned it could impose economic sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, but so far President Donald Trump’s intentions on sanctions have been unclear.

“So military-to-military there has actually been very little change in the relationship,” Goldfein said.

Goldfein, a former wing commander at Spangdahlem, briefly visited the base on Friday and met with airmen. He was on the final leg of a weeklong trip to several European countries, including NATO member Estonia and Finland, a neutral nation that shares a long border with Russia.

lekic.slobodan@stripes.com

Airmen line up at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany to meet Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein on Friday, July 19, 2019. Goldfein is a former wing commander at the base.
SLOBODAN LEKIC/STARS AND STRIPES

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