How significant are the U.S. CAATSA sanctions on Turkey and its military industry?

The outgoing administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has finally lived up to its legal obligation to impose sanctions on Turkey under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) federal law in response to Ankara’s acquisition of sophisticated Russian S-400 air defence missile systems. Just how much of an impact these sanctions will ultimately have on U.S.-Turkey military ties and the latter’s military industry has yet to be seen. 

In a statement released on Dec. 14, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the U.S. has imposed sanctions on Turkey’s Presidency of Defense Industries (SSB) under Section 231 of CAATSA “for knowingly engaging in significant transaction with Rosoboronexport, Russia’s main arms export entity, by procuring the S-400 surface-to-air missile system.” 

“The sanctions include a ban on all U.S. export licenses and authorizations to SSB and an asset freeze and visa restrictions on Dr. Ismail Demir, SSB’s president, and other SSB officers,” the statement added. 

The U.S. had long warned Turkey against taking delivery of S-400s after Ankara ordered the system in 2017. However, even after it took delivery of the system’s first components back in July 2019 and test-fired it in October 2020, the Trump administration did not impose any sanctions until now. 

These sanctions “will make life more complicated, but the denial of export licenses for U.S. items could hinder future SSB contracts,” said Aaron Stein, Research Director for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. 

In recent years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly extolled Turkey’s domestic arms industry as a shining example of Ankara’s growing military independence. Nevertheless, a lot of Turkish-built hardware contains American and Western-made components. When Turkey sought to sell locally-built T129 ATAK attack helicopters to Pakistan, it needed a U.S. export license since an American-made engine powers the helicopter.

More generally, Turkey has had trouble independently designing and building indigenous engines for its locally-built military hardware. For example, it’s seeking foreign assistance for developing engines for its fifth-generation TF-X fighter jet project. 

Consequently, the question arises if these new CAATSA sanctions will further undermine Turkey’s ability to build more military hardware as well as export locally-built systems. 

“Not necessarily,” Stein told Ahval. “It depends if the licenses for U.S. origin kit have already been procured, and therefore grandfathered, or if they need licenses for more equipment that could hinder these programs.” 

Then, there is the more general question of what these sanctions might mean for Turkey’s military. The U.S. Congress has frozen arms sales to Turkey since 2018 as well as a contract to provide structural upgrades to Turkish F-16 fighter jets. These U.S.-built jets are the backbone of the Turkish Air Force. 

Stein doubts these CAATSA sanctions will have direct effects on the Turkish military, pointing out they were “written not to hinder military-to-military cooperation.” 

Additionally, such things aren’t governed through SSB and CAATSA’s effect will be solely on future SSB-origin contracts. 

“Make no mistake, Ankara will feel some hurt here,” he said. “However, the goal was not to completely implode U.S.-Turkish relations.” 

Nicholas Heras, Director of Government Relations at the Institute for the Study of War, pointed out that the biggest problem Turkey has with its F-16s is a shortage of pilots rather than a lack of upgrades. 

“It still has not recovered from the purge of the pilots following the failed coup attempt in 2016,” Heras told Ahval.

Turkey’s doctrine since then, he explained, has moved toward “leveraging drone warfare to support complex ground operations.” 

“In that sense, Turkey is in a better relative position than it would otherwise be with regard to the challenges of piloting and upgrading its F-16s,” he said. 

More generally, Heras sees these sanctions as the Trump administration’s way of signalling to Turkey that pressure over its S-400 purchase has “grown too great in Washington D.C.” 

Michael Tanchum, a senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy (AIES) who also teaches at Universidad de Navarra, summed up the imposition of these sanctions as “a serious step that signals an inflection point in U.S.-Turkey relations.”

“The U.S. has demonstrated its resolve, and both Washington and Ankara should utilize the moment as a reality check to opening a more frank and pragmatic dialogue,” Tanchum told Ahval. 

He predicted the sanctions will have a short-term impact on the Turkish military, particularly its air warfare capabilities. 

“However, the sanction will provide even greater impetus for Turkey to further enhance the production capacities of its domestic defence industry,” he said. 

Stein also summed up the timing of these sanctions as “a rearguard action to protect against Congress.”

“Basically, the administration had run out of runway and had to act,” he said. 

And even if the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden wants to reverse this decision these sanctions “will still be codified in the NDAA [National Defence Authorization Act] and lifting them will be hard.” 

Heras believes the Trump administration levied these “relatively lenient” sanctions as a warning to Erdoğan. He also anticipates that their most significant consequence “will be that the incoming Biden team will have a more treacherous path to navigate with Erdoğan.” 

“The pressure in bilateral U.S.-Turkey relations is building up to explosion because there is a bipartisan consensus in Washington that Erdoğan needs to back down from his cosying up to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, which the S-400 saga symbolizes,” he said.