What the National Defense Authorization Act Means for Turkey
On August 13, President Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 (NDAA) into law. While the actual budget numbers are merely authorizations and not yet appropriations, the policy language included in the 2019 NDAA will go into effect now that it has been signed by the president. The newly-signed law includes language targeting Turkey’s participation in the F-35 Lightning II project, adding one more issue at a time of heightened bilateral tensions between the US and Turkey.
Section 1282 of the 2019 NDAA requires the Secretary of Defense, in coordination with the Secretary of State, to “submit to the appropriate congressional committees a report on the status of the United States [sic] relationship with the Republic of Turkey” within 90 days of the passage of the bill, examining A) the US military and political presence in Turkey; B) Turkey’s planned purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system and the impact it may have on US weapons systems operational in Turkey; C) Turkey’s participation in the F-35 project and what steps the US could take to mitigate negative repercussions from removing and replacing Turkey’s contributions to the project; and D) alternatives to the S-400 sold by the US and other NATO states. The bill further directs the Department of Defense to not “deliver any F-35 aircraft to the Republic of Turkey” until the report is delivered to Congress.
The signing of the 2019 NDAA comes at a time of heightened tensions between Turkey and the US over a number of issues. The Trump administration placed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports in March, including those from Turkey, and sanctioned the Turkish Justice and Interior Ministers at the beginning of August over the detention and trial of Andrew Brunson, a pastor from the US who is being tried on terrorism charges. Turkey has criticized the US sanctions and tariffs, warning that it threatens the bilateral alliance between the two countries. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan additionally called for a boycott of US electronics on August 14.
Additionally, a number of other bills have been proposed in Congress that include language punishing Turkey for both the detention of Brunson and its planned purchase of the Russian S-400 system. These include the Senate’s version of the Fiscal Year 2019 State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act and The Turkey International Financial Institutions Act, a Senate bill that directs the US to work to block international loans until Turkey is “no longer arbitrarily detaining or denying freedom of movement to United States citizens (including dual citizens) or locally employed staff members of the United States mission to Turkey.”
The language in the 2019 NDAA poses a potentially major issue in the US-Turkey relationship. However, it currently should be seen and watched as a potential issue, rather than an immediate issue. While the Department of Defense has expressed concern over Turkey’s planned purchase of the S-400, it has also been a strong advocate of Turkey’s continued role in the F-35 program as both a contributing nation and customer. The DoD has 90 days from the passage of the bill to deliver a report to Congress. While it is blocked from delivering F-35s to Turkey within that timeframe, there were no publicly announced transfers planned to occur during the next 90 days. Currently, Turkish pilots and maintenance workers are training on Turkey’s first two F-35s in the US and will have to complete at least a year of training before taking custody of those F-35s. Indeed, the Pentagon stated on August 14 that the training of Turkish personnel would continue at least until the report has been completed and Congress has made a decision.
If the relationship continues to worsen between the US and Turkey, US Congress may choose to take more concrete action to block the delivery of F-35s to Turkey. The US executive branch and Turkish government should see the language in the 2019 NDAA as a signal flare of the stress on the alliance and the growing displeasure in US Congress over the state of affairs. The 2019 NDAA still leaves room for negotiation and compromise. The US and Turkey should seize that window of opportunity in order to maintain the valuable bilateral security partnership and alliance.