BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — NATO’s recently installed Supreme Allied Commander Europe walked a delicate line on Friday, reiterating U.S. concerns about Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system from Russia yet affirming Ankara’s value as an ally.
Gen. Tod Wolters, who also leads U.S. European Command, spoke at the GLOBSEC security conference here in his first sit-down interview since stepping into the job in May.
Wolters reiterated other U.S. commanders’ concerns that Turkish S-400s would feed sensitive data to their Russian makers.
“You cannot operate an F-35 in the vicinity of an S-400. They won’t talk to each other, and what the two systems will attempt to do, certainly the S-400 against the F-35, is attempt to exploit the F-35’s capabilities. I can tell you that we aren’t interested in sharing the F-35’s capabilities from a radar perspective, from an operational perspective, with the Russians. We’ve made that very, very clear.”
The United States has decided to stop accepting new Turkish pilots who want to come learn how to fly the plane, according to a Thursday report by Reuters. Citing a June 6 letter from Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan to his Turkish counterpart, Foreign Policy added that unless Turkey backs out of its S-400 deal by July 31, the United States will cancel Turkish orders for the jet and send home the 42 Turkish pilots currently training on the jet at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida and Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.
When asked about the prospect of Turkey being ejected from NATO over the S-400 disagreement, Wolters sounded a much more conciliatory note.
“The mil-to-mil relationship that NATO has with Turkey is strong and as thick as it’s been in the last decade,” he said. “I suspect that we will continue to have that relationship.”
Tacan Ildem, a veteran Turkish diplomat who currently serves as NATO’s Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy, also addressed the dispute at the forum on Friday. Ildem said that Turkey, as a sovereign nation, has the right to acquire whatever it wants.
“At least for ten years, Turkey has been trying to have a proper system in place,” he said. “But I fully agree with Gen. Wolters when he described the state of affairs within NATO. The U.S. and Turkey are important allies making great contributions. I don’t think we should focus on any potential shift in axis or any change of orientation on the part of Turkey.”