- The Washington Times - Monday, July 16, 2018

The Trump administration’s tough international economic policies are ruffling feathers among foreign allies but aren’t undermining U.S. weapons sales around the world, said a top State Department official who is critical to the president’s “Buy America” campaign.

Tina Kaidanow, acting assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, made the assertion in wide-ranging remarks Monday. She also denied reports that the Pentagon shipped defective anti-tank weapons to Ukraine and warned that Turkey should be careful about purchasing a Russian-made anti-missile system.

“The bottom line is there’s still an intense degree of interest in acquiring U.S. systems,” said Ms. Kaidanow, who spoke by teleconference with reporters from the Farnborough International Airshow in the United Kingdom. “It’s clear that our partners understand the value of interoperability with the United States and our military,” she said.

Her comments were buttressed by Pentagon figures that indicate overseas weapons sales by U.S. firms rose $8.3 billion from 2016 to 2017, with American arms makers moving a total of $41.9 billion in advanced weaponry to foreign militaries last year.

U.S. officials say nearly 100 countries around the world are flying, floating and fighting with American-made weapon systems and that U.S. defense firms are the leading producers of advanced strike aircraft, precision-guided munitions and missile defense systems.

Ms. Kaidanow said longtime American partners in Europe and NATO recognize the strategic value of the connection between U.S. defense firms and foreign militaries.

She said sales have surged even while tensions rise between Washington and some of its closest allies over White House policy moves on other aspects of international trade.

Early in his term, Mr. Trump sought to leverage high demand in the world market for American weaponry by spearheading the Buy America initiative. The Pentagon, State Department and administration officials spent several months developing the policy, with an expanded role for the White House and State Department to actively advocate for sales of U.S.-made weapons.

Ms. Kaidanow soon became the diplomatic face for the initiative. She appeared personally in February at Singapore’s international air show and effectively wedded the weight of the White House to U.S. defense firms that scramble at the show to gin up business among Asian nations. Her appearance at this week’s Farnborough air show is a continuation of the effort.

But Mr. Trump’s hard-line economic and foreign policy stances — including trade tariffs on Canada, Mexico and the European Union and public demands that NATO allies contribute more to their defense budgets — has left some longtime partner nations doubting their alliances with Washington.

Mr. Trump accused Germany of being “totally controlled” by Russia during a contentious exchange with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the alliance’s annual ministerial last week in Brussels. He later referred to the European Union as “a foe” during an interview with CBS News ahead of his highly anticipated summit Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

U.S. defense firms, however, have been largely immune to blowback from any diplomatic wedge that Mr. Trump may create, said Ms. Kaidanow. “On the defense side,” she said, “these are enduring relationships, and the decisions that countries make on a lot of this are not really dictated so much by short-term trade considerations one way or the other.”

She said foreign purchases of U.S.-made weapons are driven by a strategic partnership that outstrips immediate trade policy changes. “It’s important to keep it in that lane,” Ms. Kaidanow said. “Because … we don’t want them to be acting on the concerns of the moment.”

F-35 as a diplomatic tool

U.S. defense programs specifically geared toward international consumption, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, have been a cornerstone of the Buy America initiative.

U.S. officials say the push for such highly exportable weapons is part of a strategy aimed at solidifying America’s already significant share of the global arms trade by persuading longtime allies to continue fielding American hardware and not shifting to Chinese, Russian or Israeli-made arms.

But the F-35 is now being used as a geopolitical pawn in a growing row between Turkey and Washington, where several lawmakers are pushing to end the jet fighter’s sale to the NATO ally over Ankara’s military ties to Moscow.

Ms. Kaidanow said she warned Turkey of the “serious downside” of a proposed deal in which Ankara would purchase Russian-made anti-missile weapons. Washington could level sanctions as punishment for the deal and follow up with more severe action if Turkey presses ahead with the purchase, she said.

“We want to ensure that the systems that are acquired by our allies are systems that remain supportive of the strategic relationship between us and our allies,” Ms. Kaidanow said.

“We want [Turkey] to understand … the real serious downsides to making these acquisitions, and particularly the S-400 acquisitions from the Russians, and to instead look to [U.S.] systems and to put interoperability and all the other things we care about first,” she said.

The State Department has not taken action against Turkey over the planned purchase. But lawmakers on Capitol Hill have sought to thwart the deal by threatening to halt shipments of the U.S.-made F-35 to Ankara, amid fears that Turkey is being drawn into Moscow’s growing sphere of influence in the Middle East.

“We are concerned that by purchasing these systems from the Russians, it will be supportive of some of the least good behavior that we have seen from them in various places including in Europe but also elsewhere,” said Ms. Kaidanow.

She separately lashed out at reports that the U.S. shipped faulty anti-tank weapons to Ukraine and said it smacked of Russian propaganda “of the worst kind.”

Russian state media say a large number of U.S.-made FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missiles sent to Ukrainian forces were defective are simply “outrageous and certainly not the case,” Ms. Kaidanow said. “We do not provide anyone with defective Javelins.”

Moscow has officially remained mum on reports of the weapon deliveries but has vehemently opposed the U.S. sale of the advanced anti-tank weapon system to Ukrainian forces since the Trump administration first floated the idea as it prepared to enter office in late 2016.

At the time, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov accused the U.S. of “fomenting a war” with Russia by greenlighting the sale of the 210 Javelin missiles and 37 command launch units under the terms of the American arms deal.

• Carlo Muñoz can be reached at cmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

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