Turkey and the US; the F-16 debate

Turkey and the US; the F-16 debate
Update: 13 September 2022 21:20
A+ A-
While Erdogan threatens Washington of purchasing Russian fighter jets, how will the US Congress respond to Turkey’s F-16 request?
In recent years, Turkey and the United States have been embroiled in a diplomatic debate over weaponry. Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 defense missiles has soured the relations between the two NATO allies. 

After Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian systems in 2019, the US expelled it from a programme to develop and purchase F-35 fighter jets. This led Turkey to make an official request to the US to purchase new F-16s and modernization kits to its existing fleet. 

While US President Joe Biden expressed his support for the sale of the weapons to Turkey, the White House’s backing the sale is not enough for the deal to be sealed. The approval of the purchase depends on the US Congress’ green light. However, it is not keen on doing so. In July, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a legislation blocking the Biden administration from selling F-16s to Turkey unless certain conditions are met.

In the light of these developments, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s latest remarks over the issue could once again flare up the tensions with Washington.

Last week, Erdogan signalled that Turkey may turn to other countries such as Russia to buy new fighter jets, if the United States fail to follow through on a pledge to deliver F-16s to the country.

Erdogan said they hope the US does not push Turkey to other paths over the matter, adding that the United States is not the only country selling warplanes.

“The United Kingdom, France, and Russia also sell them,” Erdogan told reporters, following the Friday prayers at an Istanbul mosque.

During a NATO summit in Madrid in June, Biden backed the sale of the F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, Erdogan said.

Erdogan added that the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu who met with a senior Republican representative in Bulgaria, has been told that the Republicans might give Turkey the necessary support for the sale of weaponry.

How did the fighter jet debate begin?

In December 2017, Turkey and Russia signed a deal on supply of S-400 surface-to-air missile systems to Turkey. The deal, which was reportedly worth $2.5 billion according to Reuters, raised worry in the West as the Russian missiles could not be integrated into the NATO’s military system. As part of NATO’s defense pledge, the member states integrate their ships, planes and weapons systems to make them work together, Reuters said.

The Ankara- Moscow deal created a diplomatic controversy between the US and Turkey as Washington said the Russian systems would compromise the security of the F-35s. In order to put pressure on Turkey, the US in April 2019, suspended the delivery of the F-35 fighter jet equipment to Turkey. 

Despite US warnings, Turkey in July 2019 has received the first shipment of the Russian missiles. The acquisition of the systems led Washington threatening Ankara with sanctions and giving the country a deadline until the end of July to cancel the deal. On the same month, the US excluded Turkey from the F-35 program. The White House said that the F-35s could not co-exist with a Russian intelligence collection program that will gather information about its advanced capabilities. Further more in December 2020, the US imposed sanctions on Turkey under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), targeting Turkey’s Defence Industries Directorate (SSB), the Turkish agency responsible for the procurement of Russian systems. 

After its removal from the F-35 programme, Turkey officially made a request to the US in October 2121, to buy 40 F-16 fighter jets and 80 modernization kits for its existing planes. 

During June’s NATO summit in Madrid, Spain, US President Joe Biden said he supports the sale of F-16 jets to Turkey and he is confident over the congressional approval.

However in July, a bipartisan group in the US Congress filed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in order to block the US from selling the F-16 jets to Turkey. The measures backed by 244 votes to 179 in the House of Representatives would prevent the United States from selling or transferring the weaponry to Turkey unless the Washington administration “certifies that doing so is essential to U.S. national

security” and Turkey does not make unauthorised overflights of Greece, according to Reuters.

Turkey, in return, sent a delegation to Washington, aiming to abolish the precondition that restricts the country from using the new F-16 jets in the territorial overflights in the Aegean Sea. 

Erdogan, speaking during a Victory Day concert in the Presidential complex on Aug.30, said they are curious to see the US reaction to a NATO country using both F-35 jets and S-300 systems, referring to Greece of having S-300 systems, located in the island of Crete. 

If Turkey were to receive F-35 jets, it would not used both F-35s and S-400s in the same system, Erdogan said. He also said that they do not care about the F-35s.

What do the analysts say?

Since Turkey is committed to deploying the S-400 systems, Ankara could be left without fighter jets to replace its ageing F-16s, according to Dr.Aaron Stein. Although Turkey intends to develop its indigenous jets, they will not be produced until the mid-2030s, Stein said in an article published by the War on the Rocks last year.

Meanwhile Grant Rumley and Soner Cagaptay argue in an article published by the Washington Institute that the F-16 request might be Erdogan’s way to test Washington to show the US as an insincere defense partner to the Turkish public. Yet, a small fraction of pro-Atlanticists does not want to end bilateral ties with the US completely and if Washington denies Ankara’s request, Turkey might drift further into Russia’s orbit, the analyst said. The Biden administration and Congress should consider that their response will shape the future of US-Turkey relations, they said. 

According to Arda Mevlutoglu, a researcher in aerospace and defense, said that Turkey faces a risk of “falling back” on the regional military power balance in an interview with Cumhuriyet newspaper. He said that Israel, Egypt, and Greece all bought new planes and modernized their already existing planes. Since purchasing new models of aircraft would be costly, the best temporary solution would be to buy older models and modernize the ones Turkey already has in its inventories, Mevlutoglu said. According to Mevlutoglu, this is the last exit for US-Turkey relations since a negative reply from the US in the sale of F-16s would push Turkey to Russia.