WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, is a former president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and current chairman of the House Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee. While leading the assembly from 2014–2016, he championed the same burden-sharing issue on which President Donald Trump has made headlines for pushing so aggressively.
Wednesday on Capitol Hill, Turner discussed Trump’s performance at the NATO summit in Brussels and Trump’s upcoming meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, as well as U.S. Air Force platforms and Turner’s own visit to South Korea earlier this month. He also tackled the controversy over whether Turkey should recieve the Lockheed Martin-made F−35 Joint Strike Fighter, which could be a conference issue for the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act.
Turner’s Korea trip coincided with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s high-level talks in Pyongyang, which ended with North Korean officials decrying Pompeo’s “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization.” It was a rocky turn after Trump met Kim Jong Un in Singapore and announced North Korea was no longer a nuclear threat.
How was your visit to South Korea?
We met with military leadership on our side and also the Ministry of Defense, minister of foreign affairs for South Korea — basically getting an understanding of our readiness, what is the extent of our planning, what is the forward-looking view of the South Koreans. I was very surprised that their view is very optimistic even as our trip was concurrent with Pompeo’s. So we were meeting with South Korean officials after the regrettable statement by North Korea, and their view was that you’re going to have some retreat along the way in negotiations, but they believe that Un is absolutely committed to denuclearization and that he is going to be pulling his nation toward the West. And they’re looking forward to ways in which we can help them.
The administration’s been criticized for not delivering on the initial pomp and circumstance surrounding the summit. Are you satisfied?
Negotiations take time, and certainly denuclearization takes time. I mean this is not something that can be done in the blink of an eye. The key is balancing continued pressure and offering the willingness to work toward a mutual solution. We just have to get that balance until we have an actual deal that’s executable.
Was the administration right to hold the Singapore summit?
The president rightly put pressure on China and undertook a military buildup, so these were actionable threats to North Korea. [The president] aggressively pursued sanctions so that not only did North Korea feel them but that the world participated and understood that North Korea needed to come back into the international community and then pursue direct talks and negotiations. Through other administrations the reticence to be actively engaged in the negotiations stymied them, and the fact that this administration would do this gives us this opportunity for success. I’m also a big fan of Pompeo, and I think if there’s a guy who can bring this home, it would be him.
Was canceling U.S. exercises in the Pacific the right concession to make, and are you confident allies were in the loop on that decision?
I talk to the South Koreans directly, and they were completely in support of the halt in exercises. And in speaking toward military leadership, they believe that their readiness capability will not be impacted. There’s a number of things they can do in training to offset any effects of not holding full-scale major exercises.
The key is maintaining credible military pressure while trying to conclude a deal, and certainly they do seem cross purposes — undertaking a major military exercise at the same time you’re undertaking major denuclearization negotiations.
Switching to platforms: Should Turkey be allowed to purchase the F−35 if it continues to move forward on the purchase of the S−400 air defense system? How can Congress best use its power to dissuade Turkey from going through with the deal with Russia?
Turkey is a valuable NATO ally, and we need to maintain that relationship. The F−35 is unrelated to other issues we have with Turkey, and it’s unfortunate people have picked that as the topic of conflict. The F−35 was built and designed to be an alliance platform or aircraft fighter. All of our allies, including Turkey, have been contributing to the construction assembly of the F−35, and Turkey was an original partner in the F−35 itself.
However, Turkey looking at Russian equipment, especially Russian air defense equipment, is a conflict not just as an ally of NATO but with the issue of interoperability of U.S. equipment. We have put in our version of the NDAA a requirement that the Department of Defense issue a report and study as to how that equipment would conflict and restrict Turkey’s access and interoperability with United States. That’s more appropriately where to look. With that, we can dissuade Turkey not to continue down that path rather than impacting an aircraft that’s intended to be an alliance aircraft.
Is it that Turkey sought an American system that was too expensive, and that’s why they pursued the S−400? Is there some other path to take with Turkey there?
I think there are better ways for us to be advocates for U.S. military sales than saying to people: “If you don’t buy ours, we’re going to punish you.” Perhaps we need to dust off our negotiation skills a little better on competing with both Chinese and Russian systems.
On the F−35, are you satisfied with what you know about the cost of the F−35 follow-on modernization program, and do you expect to have a firm estimate of what the modernization will cost now that the Joint Program Office is moving forward with its continuous capability development and delivery plan?
I don’t think anybody’s satisfied with any cost component with respect to the F−35. I think there are always going to be issues and areas that we need to look to, efficiencies, cost overruns, operational expenses — and certainly allied sales help offset those costs.
The Senate took a different approach from the House on the effort because they were concerned with sustainment costs. Can you talk about your concerns? Have they been adequately addressed?
Some of the issues are structural that we need to address with the F−35 and sustainment that both drive costs, and also I think affect the overall independence of the Department of Defense. We need to be less contractor-dependent in the overall operation and sustainment of the F−35 that we’re currently configured.
On JSTARS, there’s been a pretty public battle in Congress, and lawmakers have differing takes. The Air Force has been quietly taking steps that would allow it to award a contract for the program that leaders said they don’t need. What do you think the path ahead should be?
This is one of those issues where the Air Force comes in on an annual basis and wants to kill a program after having years of touting how essential the program is. You have to look past just Air Force leadership talk to those who have actual responsibilities for combat performance. Plan after plan after plan of combat commanders absolutely depends on JSTARS. There is nothing that substitutes for it. There are areas where we have uncontested environments where its information is incredibly important, and we may have more advanced equipment that is needed in contested environments. But it’s the Air Force’s job to create uncontested air environments. JSTARS is not only important, but it saves lives.
So allow it to continue until the follow-on capability comes?
You need a smorgasbord, a complement of tools, and I think JSTARS is certainly one of them. Just because you have JSTARS doesn’t mean you stop. You also look to more advanced technologies, but you have to recognize that you don’t need advanced technologies for every situation.
On NATO, what’s your biggest fear with President Trump’s visits with NATO leaders and with Vladimir Putin?
On the issue of NATO, I’m very fond of saying the president is not wrong and he’s not right either. He’s not wrong in that our NATO allies need to contribute more. They have absolutely allowed the United States to be their outsourced defense, and they have the resources and the capability. The fact that Russia has an economy that’s somewhere between Spain or Italy and yet threatens all of Europe shows that Europe isn’t stepping up to the plate. They need to be an equal invaluable ally, not merely just relying upon the United States and United States taxpayers for their defense.
How is he wrong?
The areas where he’s not right, I’d say, are the view that somehow people are paying into NATO. They’re actually developing their domestic, inherent capabilities. And that’s what the focus has to be, not just what some aggregate spending number is. What can Germany, Italy, the U.K. bring to the table if there’s a fight? They need to meet the 2 percent [gross domestic product defense-spending threshold], and those aggregate spending dollars are an absolute commitment by NATO nations, and they need to be held accountable for it. But if it’s not delivering real military capabilities, it’s an accounting trick.
Given your contacts with NATO allies, what concerns have you heard, and do you have any? Is the alliance fracturing?
The NATO alliance is not fracturing. It is held together by a commitment to democracy and an allied defense. They need us. There is no alternative to the United States, it’s not as though we’re in competition to lose our NATO allies to someone else. The only competition is for their status as being a contributor to NATO or a receiver of its benefits. What I’m hearing from our NATO allies is that Trump’s actions are helping their domestic debates on funding priorities. Those who are military- and national security-leaning are appreciating the pressure because they know that they need our own military infrastructure. Trump is allowing them to change the political discourse to get 2 percent.
For Trump’s meeting with Putin — on U.S. force posture in Europe or easing of sanctions against Russian entities — where should Trump not make concessions?
I don’t think he should make concessions anywhere. The area where he needs to make progress is Putin’s adventurousness, his continuing to threaten Ukraine, his modernization of his military and nuclear weapons in ways that are irresponsible. His violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty puts U.S. troops and citizens in Europe at risk. I think there’s a real long list of things to accomplish before we get anything that is a concession.
Are there opportunities for cooperation between the two nations, maybe on arms control?
We should be able to make progress on fighting terrorism. But as we’ve seen in Syria, Russia will claim that they’re fighting terrorism when in fact they’re propping up a murderous regime in Syria. The disingenuousness of Russia’s policies usually makes it very difficult to have any aligned goals.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.