US cautiously eyeing F-16 deal for Turkey despite more Russian S-400s for Ankara

Turkey has frustrated Washington and other NATO members with its human rights abuses and crackdowns on journalists, cozying up to Russia and its overflights over Greek islands.

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An announcement by Russia last week revealing that Turkey is on track to receive another “regiment” of the S-400 missile defense system has left officials in Washington scratching their heads.

But the Biden administration suggested that Ankara would not face additional sanctions as it appeared the new batch of Russian weapons is part of the original deal, which forced the Trump administration to penalize Turkey under US law.

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The US sanctioned Turkey using the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) in 2020, which included a ban of all US export licenses to Turkey’s Defense Industries Directorate (SSB) and an asset freeze and visa restrictions on its chief and deputies.

Despite repeated warnings to Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his aides, Turkey pushed ahead and was also kicked out of the F-35 fighter jet program.

Shifting alliances

After an initial bumpy relationship between Washington and Ankara under President Joe Biden, who further irked Erdogan by acknowledging the Armenian Genocide, Turkey found itself in a position to bargain after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Erdogan was able to help broker a deal that has allowed Ukrainian grain shipments to pass through the Black Sea. Halso lifted his veto of NATO membership for Finland and Sweden.

And as an alternative to the F-35s, Turkey pitched a proposal to buy F-16 fighter jets instead. Additionally, as part of the potential deal, Turkey would also ask the US to upgrade its existing fleet of 80 older F-16s, badly in need of modernization.

The Biden administration has signaled its openness to such a deal, but it has faced strong opposition from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, specifically from Biden’s own political party.

Last month, Congress passed a bipartisan amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to stop the Biden administration from selling F-16s to Turkey and add Congressional oversight to “ensure Turkey does not use F-16s to violate Greece’s sovereignty.”

Turkey pitched a proposal to buy F-16 fighter jets instead, and as part of the potential deal, it would also ask the US to upgrade its existing fleet of 80 older F-16s, badly in need of modernization. (Stock image)
Turkey pitched a proposal to buy F-16 fighter jets instead, and as part of the potential deal, it would also ask the US to upgrade its existing fleet of 80 older F-16s, badly in need of modernization. (Stock image)

The lawmakers criticized Turkey’s continued possession of the Russian S-400 and “it’s increasingly belligerent rhetoric and aggression towards Greece, America’s reliable, democratic NATO ally.”

And just two weeks ago, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sounded the alarm bell over the sale of F-16s to Turkey, calling on Turkey to reject any military cooperation with “a war criminal like Vladimir Putin.”

“The United States must be clear: Any expansion of Turkey’s ties to the Russian defense sector would be a grave mistake that would further endanger the security of our NATO allies and partners throughout Europe,” Senator Bob Menendez said in a statement.

Asked about the second S-400 regiment, State Department Spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday that the US was not aware of any new developments on the matter. When pressed if this would change the calculus of the F-16 deal, Price said: “We’ll have to wait and see what happens, but we are not aware of any new developments on this matter and so would refer you to Turkish authorities for the time being to speak.”

He added: “But the point we have consistently made across the board is that Russia’s brutal and unjustified war against Ukraine makes it vital, now more than ever in some ways, that all countries avoid transactions with Russia’s defense sector. It puts them at risk of sanctions.”

On Wednesday, Price was again asked about the F-16 deal on the heels of reports that a Turkish delegation was in Washington to discuss the issue. Price revealed little information other than that meetings were ongoing regarding “Turkey’s F-16 sustainment request” and that a delegation had traveled to the US for related discussions.

NATO and Turkey’s geostrategic importance

Turkey has frustrated Washington and other NATO members with its human rights abuses and crackdowns on journalists, cozying up to Russia and its overflights over Greek islands.

Turkey has also been engaged in a fierce campaign targeting US-backed fighters in Syria, with Erdogan dubbing them “terrorists.” Biden has accused the Turkish government of undermining the campaign to defeat ISIS.

Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomes Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during a meeting in Sochi, Russia August 5, 2022. (Reuters)
Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomes Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during a meeting in Sochi, Russia August 5, 2022. (Reuters)

Nevertheless, Turkey’s location and political weight is significant enough for the US to continue looking at ways to ensure it remains an important ally.

A senior State Department official previously told Al Arabiya English that it is crucial for NATO to ensure that Turkey has fully functioning air capabilities. “Turkey desperately needs to upgrade its current fleet of combat aircraft [for NATO],” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

The official said the lifespan of Turkey’s current fleet of F-16s would be extended by “about five to 10 years” if the US provided specific technology. “It’s their decision and could be easy. They could just ship out the S400s to Ukraine,” the official said. Although this seems farfetched, the official pointed out that this would almost certainly see a positive response from Congress.

The US president voiced his support for the F-16 sale during the NATO summit in Madrid in June, shortly after Erdogan said he was willing to lift his veto on the Swedish and Finnish bids to join NATO.

Granting a much-needed push, Turkey appears to have a few Republican supporters of the F-16 deal.

“I support the sale. While we have differences with the Turkish government, Turkey is a NATO ally, and we need to strengthen that alliance,” Senator Marco Rubio said in a statement to Al Arabiya English.

The top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee previously said the Turks had a credible argument for why they should the F-16s.

“I’m positively disposed in that direction, but I’m not completely there yet,” Senator Jim Risch told Defense News on May 4.

The Pentagon has also been a vocal supporter of ensuring that Turkey gets the fighter jets, citing NATO and US security interests.

After the NATO agreement on Sweden and Finland, Assistant Secretary for Defense for International Security Affairs Celeste Wallander told reporters that the Defense Department “fully supports Turkey’s modernization plans for its F-16 fleet.”

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