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US foreign policy

US says it supports sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey

Less than 24 hours after Ankara cleared the way for Finland and Sweden to join NATO, a senior Pentagon official said the US supported Turkey’s “modernization of its fighter fleet because that is a contribution to NATO security and therefore American security.”

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A senior Pentagon official said Wednesday that the US supports a deal for Turkey to get F-16 fighter jet upgrades, less than 24 hours after Ankara cleared the way for Finland and Sweden to join NATO.

Turkey has been sanctioned and kicked out of the US F-35 program because it refused to get rid of Russian-made S-400 missile defense systems. But Ankara appears to have won some concessions from the international community, including from the US, for removing opposition to Finland’s and Sweden’s bid to join NATO.

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US officials have said over the last 24 hours that there was no deal-making between the Turkish president and US President Joe Biden, who reached out to his Turkish counterpart hours before Ankara signed a three-way deal with Finland and Sweden.

Talks between the US and Turkey have been ongoing for months in a bid to resolve the fighter jet dispute, including “dispute resolution discussions” that began last year.

After the NATO agreement on Sweden and Finland, Assistant Secretary for Defense for International Security Affairs Celeste Wallander was on a call with reporters and was asked about the US stance on selling F-16s to Turkey.

“So, the US Department of Defense fully supports Turkey’s modernization plans for its F-16 fleet. These plans are in the works,” Wallander said, noting that such plans would need to be worked through “our contracting processes.”

Wallander added: “But the United States supports Turkey’s modernization of its fighter fleet because that is a contribution to NATO security and therefore American security.”

President Joe Biden speaks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a meeting at the NATO summit in Madrid, June 29, 2022. (Reuters)
President Joe Biden speaks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a meeting at the NATO summit in Madrid, June 29, 2022. (Reuters)

In lieu of no longer being part of the F-35 program, Turkey has pitched a deal where it would buy new F-16s from the US while upgrading its existing fleet of 80 older F-16s, badly in need of modernization.

Congress must approve this, where there is strong bipartisan frustration with Ankara, but the Biden administration has signaled it is ready to greenlight the deal.

A top State Department official 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.

And according to the State Department official, 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 is unlikely, the official pointed out that this would almost certainly see a positive response from Congress.

A part of a Russian S-400 defense system is seen after unloaded at Murted Airport near Ankara, Turkey, August 27, 2019. (Reuters)
A part of a Russian S-400 defense system is seen after unloaded at Murted Airport near Ankara, Turkey, August 27, 2019. (Reuters)

Wallander, the Pentagon official, told reporters that Turkey was a “highly capable, highly valued, strategic NATO Ally.

“And Turkish defense capability -- strong Turkish defense capabilities contribute to strong NATO defense capabilities,” she said.

Turkey is considered a key NATO ally, and its geostrategic importance has pushed member states to look at ways of appeasing a country that continues to crack down on freedom of expression and has purchased weapons from Russia, considered non-compliant with NATO.

Read more: First-of-their-kind ‘dispute resolution’ talks between US, Turkey over F-35 jets

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