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U.S.-Turkey Copter Deal Flies Despite Human Rights

Wade Boese

Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit announced July 21 that Turkey had chosen the AH-1Z KingCobra as the winner of its competition for the purchase of as many as 145 attack helicopters in a deal potentially worth more than $4 billion. The KingCobra will be the most advanced version of the Cobra attack helicopter series ever produced. The Clinton administration welcomed the potential sale despite opposition from many members of Congress who contend that Turkey has not met important "benchmarks" on human rights to allow the sale to proceed.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright first authorized U.S. companies to compete for the sale in December 1997. Turkey selected the AH-1Z, offered by Bell Helicopter Textron of Fort Worth, Texas, over two other finalists—the Italian-manufactured A-129 International and a joint Israeli-Russian helicopter, the KA-50-2. However, Ecevit reserved the option to begin negotiations with the Israeli-Russian team if terms on price, technology transfers, re-export conditions, and offsets could not be reached with Bell Helicopter. The initial contract will be for 50 of the "gunships," valued at approximately $1.5 billion, with options to purchase up to 95 more.

The AH-1Z, according to Bell Helicopter, will incorporate the latest technology, making it the "preeminent armed reconnaissance helicopter," and will provide "significant improvements over current armed helicopters in multi-mission capability and selective firepower." Advanced targeting sensors will enable the helicopter to track and acquire targets at "extreme ranges" during day or night. A Bell Helicopter spokesman said the newest Cobra will be the "best at what it is designed to do."

The U.S. Marine Corps is scheduled to procure 180 AH-1Zs, though their models will be remanufactured versions of existing AH-1Ws already in the field. Turkey's KingCobras will be newly manufactured with most of the actual work expected to take place in Turkey. Presumably, this will require substantial technology transfers. Initial deliveries of both models are to begin in 2004.

A U.S. Marine Corps spokesman said the Marines "support the international sale of the AH-1Z." The Pentagon typically supports exports of U.S. weaponry, maintaining that exports increase interoperability with friends and allies and reduce the per-unit cost of weaponry and spare parts procured by U.S. armed forces. The full benefits of exporting the AH-1Z cannot be calculated at this time, the Marine spokesman said, because it is not yet clear whether the Turkish model will use the same equipment as the U.S. model. Bell Helicopter is marketing the AH-1Z to other countries, including Australia and Poland.

In April, prior to the Turkish selection, 22 senators and 29 congressmen sent letters asking the administration to deny export licenses for attack helicopters to Turkey. Citing Turkey's past use of U.S. weapons against its minority Kurd population, Turkey's occupation of northern Cyprus, and Turkey's threats against its neighbors, the April 18 congressmen's letter, signed by the co-chairs of the Congressional Hellenic and Armenian caucuses, warned that the helicopters could provoke a "costly arms race." The letter implied that Turkey needed to devote its resources to rebuilding after a series of recent earthquakes instead of purchasing arms.

Dated April 14, the bipartisan letter by Senate members, including Joseph Biden (D-DE) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), said they had understood that the administration had "pledged" in meetings with nongovernmental organizations and defense industry representatives that Washington would not support the sale of U.S. military equipment to Turkey unless it met several human rights benchmarks.

The senators wrote that the benchmarks reportedly included, among others, allowing freedom of expression, ending bans on political parties, and lifting the state of emergency in Kurdish regions. "By any objective analysis, Turkey has failed to meet the benchmarks," the senators wrote.

Assessing Turkey's 1999 human rights performance in a February 25 report, the U.S. State Department noted the Ecevit government had adopted initiatives to improve human rights conditions but that "serious human rights abuses continued." The report charged that limits on freedom of speech and press remain a "serious problem" and that southeastern Turkey, which is inhabited by the Kurds, remains a "serious concern."

President Bill Clinton, in a June 27 letter to Congressman Frank Pallone (D-NJ), said that human rights would be considered in the license review process but asserted that "significant progress" had been made in the past year. Clinton further wrote that the United States should support Turkey's efforts to meet its "important obligations" to NATO and its legitimate defense needs.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-NC) and 37 other senators sent a July 14 bipartisan letter to Albright underscoring their support for the sale, according to a congressional source. House members also wrote to the secretary in July to endorse U.S.-Turkish defense cooperation.

Once negotiations, which are now in the preliminary stage and likely to take several months, are concluded, the State Department will need to approve the contract and then notify Congress of the sale. Under the 1976 Arms Export Control Act, Congress will have 15 days to vote a joint resolution of disapproval to block the deal. With 38 senators already endorsing the sale, deal opponents are currently short of the two-thirds majority necessary in both houses of Congress to stop the sale.

Congress has never voided a sale once it has been formally notified. However, Turkey once canceled a buy of 10 SuperCobra helicopters in 1996 because of strong criticism within the United States. Currently, Turkey is flying nine SuperCobras from an earlier buy.