U.S. lawmakers are trying to block F-35 sales to Turkey. Here’s why it makes no sense
After weeks of speculation, three U.S. Senators introduced a bill on April 26 to block the sale of the F-35 fighter jet to Turkey. The bipartisan bill was accompanied by a statement accusing Turkey of falling “more and more out of line with, and at times in contrast to, U.S. interests” and went on to cite security risks to the U.S. in transferring “sensitive F-35 technology and cutting-edge capabilities to Erdoğan’s regime.” The move, though expected, threatened to further alienate two key NATO allies. The reference to technology transfers was particularly irksome to some in Turkey, which has been a partner in the development phase of the F-35 since 2004. Ten Turkish companies are currently involved in the production of component parts for the aircraft, including building its F-35 engines. Our chief political scientist argues the move is not only cynical but will do little to achieve its desired effect.
►Isn’t t odd for lawmakers to be meddl ng n fore gn pol cy ssues? What are the Senators n th s case try ng to accompl sh? There seems to be a general proclivity among American lawmakers to get involved in policy questions and dictate foreign policy to the executive. One area where this happens often is limiting arms sales or arms technology transfer to other countries. To the best of my knowledge, there is no other country where the legislature interferes so directly in policymaking. It’s quite understandable that the publics in democratic societies express opinions about foreign policy which is transmitted to the executive branch through a variety of means; the legislature being one of them. But it is unique that the legislature takes it upon itself to make policy which is generally seen as the prerogative of the executive. Both in the American Senate and House of Representatives, we find activities that are out of line with the traditional division of duties between the executive and the legislative branches. On many occasions, the Congress has directed the American government not to sell weapons or transfer technology to another country with which they have problems or whose actions they consider problematic.
In fact, Turkey has had some experience with this practice already. In 1974, after the intervention in Cyprus, the American Congress, against the wishes of the President, enacted legislation introducing an arms embargo on Turkey. The U.S. Administration tried for three years to have it lifted. In the meantime, was Turkey left without weapons? No. Ways of procuring equipment, parts, ammunition etc. were found. The embargo only imposed a certain amount of inconvenience. but it also opened the gate to something else. For the first time, Turkey established the 4th Army, the Aegean army, which was not under NATO command. It was armed with weapons that were not necessarily supplied by the U.S. So, you see that the attempt to legislate who gets what arms may produce unanticipated outcomes.
►For nstance, Turkey’s dec s on to buy the Russ an S-400 m ss le defense system? There are two dimensions to this. First, the buying of arms is a purely commercial transaction and second, it is an act of security or defense. When a state decides to buy arms, it looks at several things. Naturally, one is how much it is going to cost. Another is whether, in the long run, it will be able to acquire technology so that at some point it may become part of the production process. Naturally, it also has to evaluate from whom the weapons will be bought from a political cum security perspective.
Regarding missile defense, Turkey did go out to the international market and tried to negotiate with the U.S. to purchase the Patriot system but with the proviso that some of the production would eventually take place in Turkey, expecting that there would be some kind of technology transfer. On two counts, however, the deal did not materialize: first, it was too expensive and second, the U.S. refused to allow technology transfers. Russian missiles are state of the art weapons. It’s not clear to what degree the Russians will share technology but they will be training Turks to operate this system and there will be some Russian technicians involved, so there is no doubt that some technology will be transmitted. Their price has been more reasonable than anything that has been offered by our western partners. The other thing to remember is that although the S-400 may not be integrated into the NATO system, it will meet some of Turkey’s defense needs not all of which may be met by NATO. We should remember that, even during the Cold War, there were always doubts as to whether NATO would come to Turkey’s support in the case of certain contingencies.
►Technology transfers seem to be a theme n the U.S. Th s s the same cr t c sm the adm n strat on has leveled aga nst Ch na, say ng that these transfers hurt the U.S. because they g ve away technology. Is there any val d ty to that argument? There is some validity to it. But I think the current administration has very little understanding of how the global economy works. It appears that Mr. Trump and his friends believe that if you’re building a car, all the parts should be made in the U.S. In the current system of production, the fact is that a company designs a product; then its parts are produced wherever the company can buy or produce the part of the desired quality at the lowest price. There may be some things that are security related where rules of protection are in order. But, I think that Mr. Trump sees everything as security connected; and unfortunately, he doesn’t really understand how the international economy operates and the benefit it brings to all.
When the American Senators propose Turkey be blocked from purchasing the F-35, they are saying that this is an American project and not a joint project. The problem derives from the fact that U.S. has reverted to a Cold War mindset where it thinks it can call all the shots. The U.S. must come to the realization that it is no longer the Cold War. Allies have common interests as well as a variety of divergent ones and if you do not allow for a certain amount of pursuing divergent interests and policies, then the functioning of the entire alliance is endangered. In terms of guarding technological know-how, even technologies that are kept secret have a way of getting imitated, reverse engineered, stolen or secretly transmitted. The best example of this is nuclear weapons. Despite the sustained effort to prevent their spread, there’s no indication that this policy has been successful. We now have nuclear powers like Israel, Pakistan and India and North Korea none of which would be classified as world leaders in nuclear technology. So the diffusion of technology through transfers, sales, acquisition, espionage or other means, is impossible to stop. The idea is that you always stay ahead by developing new technologies.