F-16 Fighting Falcon Fighter Jet

3 Questions: Türkiye’s F-16 request to US

Why does Türkiye want to buy F-16V aircraft and modernization kits? Why are there problems in procuring these aircraft and modernization kits? How would a lack of US sales approval affect Turkish-US relations?

In three questions, Rifat Oncel discusses Türkiye’s request to supply F-16V from the US and the problems it has encountered in the process for Anadolu’s Analysis Department.

Why does Türkiye want to buy F-16V aircraft and modernization kits?

F-16 aircraft are an essential element of the Turkish Air Force and constitute its main striking force. Between 1987 and 2012, Türkiye purchased 270 F-16 aircraft of various models from the United States. Currently, Türkiye has the largest number of F-16 aircraft after the US and Israel. Türkiye has been one of the most active users of these aircraft due to the security challenges it faces, particularly in the fight against terrorism. Therefore, the fact that the Turkish Air Force has considerable experience and know-how on the aircraft makes the commissioning of new and advanced F-16s a rational choice.

On the other hand, the fact that many of the F-16 aircraft in Türkiye’s inventory are on the verge of obsolescence necessitate the supply of new aircraft. Türkiye’s F-16 inventory consists of Block 30, Block 40, Block 50, and Block 50+ configurations. Considering that most of Türkiye’s F-16 fleet (160 aircraft in Block 30 and Block 40 configurations) entered service between 1987 and 1995, the situation can be seen more clearly. The air force’s most modern F-16s, the Block 50+ aircraft, have been in service for about 10 years. Therefore, Türkiye wants to purchase the latest F-16 Block 70, which has some of the features of the fifth-generation aircraft.

Likewise, the Turkish defense industry has a long history with the F-16. Over the years, Turkish companies have carried out structural and avionics modernization programs on the aircraft. This has extended the aircraft’s flying lifespan and upgraded them with more modern equipment. However, it should be noted that of the 160 F-16s that Türkiye purchased between 1987 and 1995, all except the first eight were manufactured in Türkiye. Similarly, 46 F-16s exported to Egypt were produced in Türkiye between 1993 and 1995. Türkiye has also carried out the modernization of Pakistani and Jordanian F-16s in the past 20 years. In addition to the new aircraft, Türkiye has also requested 79 modernization kits to upgrade its remaining F-16s to Block 70 level.

Why are there problems in procuring these aircraft and modernization kits?

In October 2021, Türkiye submitted a letter of request to purchase 40 F-16 Block 70 fighter jets and 79 modernization kits from the US. However, it was only in the past few weeks that an unofficial notification was made to Congress of the potential sale. Particularly in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, US President Joe Biden announced his support for the sale of the aircraft and modernization kits to Türkiye. Afterward, Biden reiterated his support for the sale in the face of various objections from Congress and the passage of bills that would place certain conditions on the sale. Subsequently, these conditions were removed from the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

Following the administration’s informal notification to Congress, a tiered review process was initiated to start negotiations with Congress. This process lasts 20-40 days, after which an official notification is made. However, various objections from Congress have dragged the situation into uncertainty. Most recently, 29 senators sent a letter to Biden stating that they would not approve the sale of aircraft and modernization kits until Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership applications were approved by Türkiye. In this sense, the administration may refrain from making the official notification to Congress, which would mean shelving the sale. There have been examples of this in the past, such as the sale of AH-1W Super Cobra helicopters under President Bill Clinton and Predator and Reaper Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) under President Barack Obama.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent statements suggest that Türkiye is unlikely to approve Sweden’s NATO membership, at least in the short term. In fact, Türkiye has officially said that there is no connection between the potential sale and Sweden’s and Finland’s NATO membership. However, as with any major arms sale deal, the issue has inevitably been politicized.

How would a lack of US sales approval affect Turkish-US relations?

In short, it is not in Türkiye’s interest that the sale does not take place, but neither would this serve American interests. The F-16 is the sole demonstration of the longstanding Turkish-US security and defense partnership. Similarly, arms sales in general, and F-16s in particular, are a reflection of the balancing role and diplomatic influence the United States has historically played in Turkish-Greek conflicts. Greece’s air force is also largely composed of F-16s, which Türkiye and Greece acquired at roughly the same time. Therefore, the failure of the sale could seriously erode the military dimension, perhaps the strongest aspect of Turkish-American relations, which have been strained by various crises in recent years.

Likewise, the diplomatic influence of the US in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean would decrease in Türkiye. This change has become more evident in recent years with the steps taken by the US under the influence of the Greek lobby. In fact, the sale of F-16s to Türkiye and the sale of the fifth-generation F-35 fighter jet to Greece being reported to Congress at the same time was another sign of this. If both sales are approved, it will be the first time in history that the US has given Greece a military technological edge. At this point, it should be noted that 83 Greek F-16s were upgraded to the Block 70/72 configuration years ago and the Greek air force has started to receive them.

Finally, while the F-16V can be easily procured by countries with very modest military capabilities, the fact that there are obstacles to the Turkish Armed Forces, one of NATO’s largest armies, summarizes the situation in general terms.

[AA, February 27 2023]

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