Congressional appropriators move to tie up F-35 deliveries to Turkey

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Article Summary
The new House foreign aid bill would prohibit spending federal dollars to transfer the jets unless Ankara abandons its plans to buy missile defenses from Moscow.

Congress is turning to the power of the purse in its efforts to force Turkey to choose between the US F-35 jet and a Russian missile-defense system.

The House foreign aid spending panel last week advanced annual spending legislation that would prohibit the Donald Trump administration from transferring the fifth-generation stealth aircraft to Turkey unless Secretary of State Mike Pompeo certifies that Ankara has scrapped plans to buy the S-400 from Russia. Lawmakers in both chambers have previously sought to block the F-35 sale as stand-alone bills, but including the language in the foreign aid spending package increases the likelihood that it will become US law.

Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, joined Reps. Paul Cook, R-Calif., and John Garamendi, D-Calif., to introduce legislation blocking the sale earlier this month: the Protecting NATO Skies Act. Senate foreign aid panel members James Lankford, R-Okla., Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., have introduced the same bill in the upper chamber.

“Turkey is choosing to jeopardize its F-35 partner status for dealings with the Russian Federation,” Turner said in a statement introducing the bill. “It is imperative that we prevent our superior F-35 capabilities from falling into the wrong hands.”

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Both Congress and the Trump administration argue that operating the S-400 alongside the F-35 would compromise the aircraft and its sensitive technology and impact interoperability among NATO allies. The Trump administration has already suspended the F-35 delivery. Turkey produces the fuselage and other components for the F-35, and would likely pull out if banned from acquiring it.

Current law already prohibits the transfer of F-35s to Turkey — at least temporarily. The spending bill for fiscal year 2019, which Congress belatedly passed in January, bans their delivery until the State Department submits a report on mandatory Russia-related sanctions that would be triggered by the S-400 sale. The report is due between July and November.

Ankara has called on President Donald Trump to waive sanctions that the sale would trigger under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which Congress passed in 2017 despite the president’s objections. Congress retroactively added a limited a waiver authority, but it is intended to apply to US allies in Asia with longstanding defense ties to Moscow — not fellow NATO members such as Turkey.  

In the meantime, Congress continues to pile on.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and top Republican Mike McCaul, R-Texas, introduced a resolution last week “expressing concern for the United States-Turkey alliance” over the S-400 sale.

The nonbinding resolution calls on the Trump administration to implement the sanctions called for under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act should Ankara proceed with the sale. The resolution also warns that the sanctions could impede Turkey’s acquisition of other US weapons: the Patriot missile defense system, CH-47F Chinook and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters as well as the F-16 fighter jet.

House leaders Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., have also signed onto the bill alongside the heads of the Appropriations and Judiciary committees: Reps. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., Kay Granger, R-Texas, Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and Doug Collins, R-Ga. Notably, Lockheed Martin assembles the F-35s in Granger’s district.

Bryant Harris is Al-Monitor's congressional correspondent. He was previously the White House assistant correspondent for Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera English and IPS News. Prior to his stint in DC, he spent two years as a US Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. On Twitter: @brykharris_ALM, Email: bharris@al-monitor.com.

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