WASHINGTON — Four key members of Congress, either individually or collectively, have quietly frozen all major U.S. arms sales to Turkey for nearly two years in a move to pressure Ankara to abandon its Russian-built S-400 air defense system, Defense News has learned.

The legislative action, which has not been previously reported, is another sign of the deeply fractured relationship between the two NATO allies, a disruption that has already led to Turkey’s expulsion from the F-35 joint strike fighter program.

While it is unclear exactly how many potential sales have been held back, at least two significant deals are in limbo: a follow-on contract for F-16 structural upgrades and export licenses for U.S.-made engines that Turkey needs to complete a $1.5 billion sale of attack helicopters to Pakistan. Historically, the United States is the largest exporter of weapons to Turkey.

When Congress holds up sales of major weapon systems like tanks, planes and ships, it is typically meant to rebuke a country’s specific military or political actions, such as when lawmakers attempted to block sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in 2019. But freezing arms sales is a diplomatic tool that the United States hasn’t used against Turkey since 1978, after the Turkish military invaded Cyprus.

Defense News learned of the situation from a half dozen sources in Congress, the administration, and the defense industry, all of whom requested anonymity because of the sensitivities involved.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and House Foreign Affairs ranking member Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, acknowledged they are part of the freeze after they were contacted by Defense News.

The two other lawmakers who can sign off on foreign military sales ― House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., are also part of the hold, according to multiple Capitol Hill sources. Neither would comment for this story.

“There is serious concern over [Turkey’s purchase of the S-400] in both parties and in both chambers on the Hill, and until the issues surrounding this purchase are resolved I cannot and will not support weapon sales to Turkey,” Risch said in an email to Defense News.

“An oh shit moment”

Turkey’s relationship with the United States has been strained for several years — especially with Congress.

Lawmakers have blasted President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s deepening ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Erdogan’s rejection of U.S. offers to buy the Patriot surface-to-air missile system over the Russian-made S-400 and Turkey’s military incursion last year into Kurdish-controlled northern Syria also frustrated members of Congress.

“Turkey is a longtime strategic ally of the United States. That relationship has deteriorated dramatically in recent years and is quickly deteriorating further,” Risch said. “President Erdogan’s purchase of the Russian S-400 significantly changed the nature of our relationship. This purchase benefits our adversary Putin and threatens the integrity of the NATO Alliance.”

Traditionally, during the arms sales process, the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee — the so-called “four corners” — are granted an opportunity to dissuade the U.S. State Department from approving arms sales to foreign governments on an informal basis. The lawmakers have used that notification period to block sales from moving forward, but they consider such deliberations sensitive and rarely speak publicly about them.

Engel has refused to sign off on military sales to Turkey since mid 2018, while Risch has maintained his own hold since Turkey officially took possession of the S-400 in July 2019, according to multiple congressional sources. McCaul doesn’t have a blanket hold, and has, at certain points, signed off on sales specifically in support of NATO operations.

“Nobody has signed off on anything, roughly, for the last year,” said one congressional source. “Nothing moves in this process until all four of the offices have said, ‘yea.’”

US President Donald Trump (C) and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) listen to U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jim Risch (2nd R) during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC on November 13, 2019. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (C) and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) listen to U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jim Risch (2nd R) during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC on November 13, 2019. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

A second congressional source described Turkey taking possession of the S-400 as “kind of, pardon my language, an oh shit moment.” The source added that Turkey riled lawmakers further in November, when it publicly targeted a Turkish F-16 with the S-400, a move interpreted as an implicit threat against other F-16 users, such as the United States.

“Not only was it intentionally provocative, but it happened the day after Erdogan was in the Oval Office,” the source said.

Turkey’s September 2017 decision to purchase the S-400 created a major rift between Turkey and its alliance partners. NATO officials quickly sounded the alarm that Turkey would compromise NATO’s security if it plugged the S-400 into allied systems, as the Russian system would be sharing a network with sensitive alliance data. Most significantly, American officials worried that the system would be able to gain information about the F-35, compromising the stealth capabilities of the jet. The presence of Russian contractors in Turkey to support the S-400 was also a concern.

President Donald Trump has yet to engage in the sort of high-profile confrontation with Congress over Turkey such as when he vetoed Congress’s attempt to halt U.S. sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates last year. But the administration has made efforts to lobby lawmakers in favor of individual deals with Turkey, according to the second congressional source, who noted opposition to Turkey is both bipartisan and bicameral.

“Right now, the mood [in Congress] toward Turkey is enormous,” the source said. “Unless Turkey wants to change the narrative and do a mea culpa, the president could very easily lose a veto override vote.”

Just as the Trump administration has been quiet about the hold on sales, so have the U.S. defense contractors who would benefit from those purchases.

Two sources with ties to major defense primes said they had not seen evidence of a full-scale lobbying push from industry to clear the way for these deals, which include new sales and the renewal of existing contracts typically viewed as routine.

Instead, an unspoken consensus exists among contractors to wait out the holds until tensions between the United States and Turkey cool, or until new policymakers in either a Biden or second Trump administration shift the White House’s willingness to work with Turkey.

“We’re operating under the impression that anything that requires congressional notification will not move forward this year,” said one source.

Risch in particular has evinced frustration the United States could not reach a deal on the Patriot system. Similarly, when congressional ire was peaking over Turkey’s invasion of Syria in October, Engel called Erdogan an “authoritarian thug” whose rule is “a glaring black mark on Turkey’s historic secular, democratic traditions.”

“We need to pressure him while ramping up diplomacy in the hopes of getting Turkey back on the right track as a NATO ally,” Engel said at the time.

Another motivating issue is the lack of action from the Trump administration on implementing the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA.

Under that law, the Trump administration is bound to level sanctions against any nation that purchase a major defense article from Russia, but the administration has yet to impose those sanctions, much to the consternation of Congress.

“Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 is unacceptable and undermines NATO’s mission to deter Russian aggression,” McCaul said in a email to Defense News. “The Administration must impose the sanctions required by law in response to this purchase. Turkey must reverse course on this destabilizing action to renew the United States’ confidence in our defense relationship.”

U.S. officials worry about growing ties between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images)
U.S. officials worry about growing ties between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images)

McCaul supports a proposal to lift CAATSA sanctions against Turkey, once imposed, if Turkey no longer possesses the S-400. That proposal passed as part of the House’s version of the annual defense policy bill.

Melissa Dalton, a former Pentagon official now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, called the lack of resistance from the administration “surprising, in the sense that Turkey is an actual ally, whereas the Saudis are just a close partner.” But she noted that Turkey falls on a seam between the European and Middle Eastern subject teams, both at the Pentagon and at the State Department, and so putting together “a coherent policy to start with is tough.”

Through a spokesman, the State Department declined to comment on the Turkey arms hold.

In a statement to Defense News, the Turkish embassy in Washington said “There are a number of arms procurement cases for Turkey, pending approval in Congress. As a staunch member of NATO and an ally of the U.S., we are confident that approval of these requests without further delay will be a natural outcome of our strategic cooperation.

“The U.S. is our number one trade partner in defense industry and we believe that it is in the strategic interest of both Turkey and the U.S. to further increase our bilateral cooperation in this field.”

Industrial impact

The defense industry is watching the export issue closely.

Arms deals between the United States and Turkey totaled nearly $1 billion from 2015 through 2019, according to data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. During that time, Turkey ranked within the United States’ top 20 customers, with purchases that included aircraft and missiles. Its military is now in the market for trainer helicopters.

Not all arms deals to Turkey have stopped. Older cases that are already underway have not paused, and any weapons sales — be it Foreign Military Sales (FMS), where the U.S. government acts as a go-between, or Direct Commercial Sales (DCS), in which the country deals directly with industry — less than the $25 million threshold is not subject to Congressional approval.

But direct commercial sales and low-tier FMS cases tend to be smaller deals, such as spare parts, ammunition, and maintenance packages for aging equipment. The tanks, planes and ships that form the core of any modern military remain the province of major FMS sales.

The blockage has paralyzed negotiations for several deals, including a follow-on contract for F-16 upgrades, according to one source with knowledge of the matter.

Lockheed Martin is performing structural upgrades to a portion of Turkey’s aging F-16 Block 30 fleet under a direct commercial sales contract that expires this fall. Defense News reported in 2017 that it would take until 2023 for Lockheed to complete modifications for all 35 F-16s included in the deal.

An industry source with knowledge of the F-16 contract said that Lockheed is still “planning to complete the requirements” of the order and does not “foresee any performance changes or requirement changes.”

When asked to comment about the Turkish F-16 upgrade contract, Lockheed Martin officials said that “any questions related to F-16 sustainment work should be directed to the U.S. government.”

Another side effect of Congress’ hold is the endangerment of a $1.5 billion deal between Turkey and Pakistan for the sale of 30 Turkish-made T129s attack helicopters, an issue Defense News reported on earlier this year.

Two major Turkish firms are licensed to domestically produce the T129 and its engine. Turkish Aerospace Industries manufactures the helicopter through a partnership with Italian-British aerospace company AgustaWestland. Meanwhile, the helicopter’s CTS800 engine — originally designed by the Light Helicopter Turbine Engine Company, a joint venture between U.S.-based Honeywell and U.K.-based Rolls Royce — is made by Tusaş Engine Industries.

A maintenance contract for Turkey's F-16s is one of the items being held up by Congress. (OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images)
A maintenance contract for Turkey's F-16s is one of the items being held up by Congress. (OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images)

Because the CTS800 was originally produced in the United States, Turkey cannot sell T129s — or any weapon system containing that engine — without obtaining an export license from the U.S. government.

But those licenses are also being held back as a result of the congressional block on arms deals, leaving Tusaş Engine Industries racing to develop a replacement engine for the T129.

“Pakistan has agreed to give us another year [to resolve the problem]. We hope we will be able to develop our indigenous engine soon to power the T129,” Ismail Demir, the head of Turkey’s top procurement agency, said Jan. 6. “After one year, Pakistan may be satisfied with the level of progress in our engine program, or the U.S. may grant us the export license.”

Threatening the T129 sale to Pakistan hurts Turkey more than just financially, said Joel Johnson, a Teal Group analyst who has previously worked for the State Department and as a staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

For one, the sale cements a relationship between Turkey and a fellow Islamic nation, signaling the country’s pivot from the West. Increasing annual defense exports is also a key priority for Erdogan, who vowed in 2015 to boost arms sales to $25 billion by 2023 and to rid the Turkish defense industrial base of its reliance on foreign suppliers.

“This is a nerve ending that is very sensitive to Erdogan. It’s not the helicopters, per se, it’s the symbolism of the sale that hits him in a way that hurts,” Johnson said.

Honeywell and Rolls Royce declined to comment for this story.

The current hold marks the first U.S. arms embargo on Turkey since 1975, after Turkey invaded Cyprus and Washington halted sales of weapons and military assistance to Turkey for three years.

Some industry officials worry that if the hold extends much beyond 2021, the relationship between American and Turkish defense contractors could diminish as legacy contracts expire, leading Turkish firms to seek industrial partnerships elsewhere.

“What value [does] the Hill or the administration see in holding up these legacy areas of cooperation? Do we really think that will influence Erdogan’s decision making?” the source said. “Will industry be able to simply restart the defense industrial cooperation once Erdogan is out of power in the future? I think that’s the tricky part. The policy decision makes sense, but the byproducts of that policy decision and the implications down the road have the potential to hurt industry and U.S. national security.”

Russian S-400 air defense system, on display in 2017, is at the heart of a split between the U.S. and its NATO ally Turkey. (ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images)
Russian S-400 air defense system, on display in 2017, is at the heart of a split between the U.S. and its NATO ally Turkey. (ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images)

But Teal’s Johnson countered that Congress’ block on sales could force the White House to work with lawmakers more closely on issues related to Turkey, including potential sanctions or punitive measures in the wake of the S-400 acquisition.

“Congress can’t negotiate with Turkey. They can only really go negotiate with the White House, so the question is, what do they want the White House to do, and is anybody talking?” he said. “Normally, if you had a normal president, the congressional staffers would be quietly talking to the [National Security Council] and the State Department about what they want. … It’s hard to see the way forward with this group.”

Even if Turkey fulfills U.S. government demands and arm sales resume, it remains to be seen whether Turkey will still line up to buy American weapons.

Over the past 15 years, Turkey has drastically cut its spending on weapons imports, going from the world’s third largest importer in the 1995-1999 timeframe to 15th in 2015-2019, according to SIPRI.

The last FMS deal approved by the State Department to Turkey was in 2018: an offer to sell 80 Patriot MIM-104E Guidance Enhanced Missiles, and 60 PAC-3 Missile Segment Enhancement missiles — a last ditch effort by the U.S. government to entice Ankara to cancel its S-400 purchase in favor of an American air defense system. It was never completed, as Turkey pressed on with the procurement of the S-400.

Ultimately, the Patriot deal was taken off the table.

According to figures from the State Department, in 2017 the United States authorized more than $587 million in DCS sales for Turkey and shipped equipment worth more than $106 million. The next year, the United States approved more than $600 million and shipped $136 million in weapons. In 2019, more than $615 million was authorized and over $66 million shipped.

Although the United States remains Turkey’s biggest foreign supplier of weapons, the country makes a fair amount of military goods domestically, has purchased Russian arms like the S-400, and even flirted with buying a Chinese missile system in 2013.

“They have a reasonably capable defense industrial base that is getting more capable because of investment going in from the government. They’ve also become a little more of a catholic shopper,” said Douglas Barrie, a military aerospace expert at the International Institute of Strategic Studies. “They have some options. They wouldn’t just have to look to Europe if the U.S. was no longer seen as a supplier nation to them. I think, on some occasions, they may look farther afield.”

It’s unclear whether a retaliatory action like the arms sale freeze helps bring Erdogan to the table, or whether it pushes Turkey even further into Russia’s arms.

“The alliance is incredibly troubled at the moment, but I don’t think it’s beyond the pale,” Dalton said. “The U.S. has a lot at stake in terms of Turkey’s trajectory, and the NATO alliance has a lot at stake as well. So for all those reasons, [any actions] need to be framed as part of a broader approach.

“I don’t have high confidence that it’s being framed in that way.”