Air Force secretary advocates for export control fixes amid concerns over Turkey

Air Force secretary advocates for export control fixes amid concerns over Turkey
© Victoria Sarno Jordan

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson on Tuesday hinted that it may be the United States’s fault that NATO ally Turkey has agreed to buy a Russian air defense system, pointing to strict American export controls.

“We always want our allies to have equipment that’s interoperable and that doesn’t pose a threat,” Wilson said before an audience at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

“Sometimes it’s the United States that’s part of the problem.”

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Wilson was responding to a question on Turkey’s agreement in December to buy the Russian-made S-400 long-range air and anti-missile defense system.

The S-400 is not interoperable with other NATO and U.S. military equipment and is expected to create operational problems within the alliance.

Wilson said the sale “does present some operational problems ... particularly as it relates to the location of advanced aircraft in Turkey” like the F-35.

Washington was expected this year to begin delivery of the first of an eventual 116 F-35 Lightning II fighters to Turkey. The nation has committed to buying the F-35A variant under the U.S.-led, multinational Joint Strike Fighter program.

“We would not want to have that aircraft close to the S-400 and so those discussions are going on with Turkey,” Wilson added, noting that the State Department and Pentagon are leading the talks.

When asked whether the sale was an indication of an alliance problem with Turkey, Wilson replied, “no,” and hinted that it was U.S. export controls that were to blame for the sale.

“We’ve got some of our allies that are trying to purchase unmanned aerial vehicles, for example, or remotely piloted aircraft. We won’t sell them ours because of export control and so we force them into a situation where they want to buy unmanned aircraft or even intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft that are built by China,” she said.

“Sometimes we need to figure out how to be better allies and ... build things that are designed to be exportable from the very beginning so that we can all operate off the same equipment. ... Some of it’s our own fault and we’ve got to fix it,” Wilson added.

Turkey in the past year has increasingly been a thorn in Washington’s side, starting with an incident last year when 15 Turkish security officials were indicted for an attack on protestors outside the Turkish Embassy. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had been in D.C. for a visit with President Trump at the time.

Washington and Ankara have also butted heads over Kurdish forces in Syria. The United States has aided the forces in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but Turkey considers the Kurds terrorists.

In addition, Turkey has detained American pastor Andrew Brunson for the past 18 months over accusations that he aided in a failed coup attempt against Erdoğan.

Congress has since become fed up with Turkey.

The House version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), passed last week, would stop all weapons sales to the nation until the Pentagon analyzes worsening tensions between the two nations.

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the annual defense policy bill, meanwhile, has two provisions targeting Turkey’s plans to purchase the F-35. Another provision would sanction Ankara if it goes through with the S-400 purchase.