The Purchase of F-16s: A Feasible but Thorny Turkish Mission in the US

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 94

(Source: Middle East Eye)

Buying S-400 surface-to-air missile systems from Russia has become one of the main sources of dispute between Washington and Ankara. As a result of that purchase, Turkey was removed from the F-35 stealth jet fighter program in 2019; and the following year, it fell under sanctions included in the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Apart from being a prospective buyer of the United States’ most advanced fighter jet, Turkey was one of the F-35 project’s original international partners. Turkish companies had a sizeable stake, having invested an estimated $10 billion into the program. This amount could almost cover the cost of the 100 planes Turkey had planned to procure from Lockheed Martin, the main US developer of the F-35. Following its expulsion, Turkey lost access to one of the most prestigious high-technology projects in the transatlantic alliance and also forfeited its $1.4 billion advance payment. Still, the most important impact of having been frozen out of the program was the disruption of Turkey’s plans to modernize its air fleet starting in the early 2020s.

As an alternative, Ankara decided to buy 40 fourth-generation F-16 multi-role fighters and 80 modernization kits. Last autumn, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said, “We can supply most of our needs from local suppliers. We need to supply some part of our needs from abroad. In this regard, we need to modernize our F-16s. We have started a technical process to get Block 70 “Viper” F-16s and modernize some of our aircraft from our strategic ally and friend, the US. The stronger that Turkey and the Turkish Armed Forces are, the stronger NATO’s [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] defense will be” (Anadolu Agency, October 23, 2021).

The block 70/72 models of the F-16 are designed to operate for 12,000 hours, up until the year 2060. Moreover, they have an APG-83 AESA radar system, which is a more developed version of the radar found on the Block 50/52 models. Thus, the procurement of new F-16s can help Turkey orchestrate its transition period during the 2020s while still upgrading the capabilities of its fleet.

Starting from the 2020s, it was envisioned that F-35s and F-16s would form the backbone of the Turkish Air Force. The defense manufacturer Turkish Aerospace (TUSAŞ) has been working on several modernization projects to extend the service period of Turkey’s existing F-16s since 2006. After being expelled from the F-35 program, the procurement of new F-16s was recognized as the second-best alternative because Turkey already has a well-functioning logistical infrastructure for this platform.

The orchestration of an air force’s logistics is of utmost importance to the fleet’s sustainability and strength. Even though Turkey is working on an indigenous fifth-generation fighter jet project (TF-X)—itself a difficult target—the expulsion from the F-35 program created a logistical challenge for the Turkish Air Force. Ankara needs to resolve this problem with a concrete plan.

The cost of 40 F-16s and 80 modernization kits is estimated at $6 billion–10 billion. In other words, Turkey has to find extra money in the budget, even if Ankara can take back the $1.4 billion it originally spent as a down payment on the F-35s. Still, modernizing the Turkish Air Force is critical considering Turkey’s aging fleet and changing dynamics in the region. Greece’s efforts to modernize its own air fleet with F-35s and French Rafales have the potential to change the balance of power in the Aegean and the Mediterranean. For a long time, Washington was cautious about upsetting the balance between Ankara and Athens. Beyond this parameter, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine even more thoroughly disrupted the dynamics in the region. Consequently, there is now a need to discuss the modernization of the Turkish fleet from a broader regional security perspective.

Acknowledging this reality, the US State Department sent a letter to Congress in March in support of Turkey’s bid for the F-16s. While praising Ankara’s role in the Russo-Ukrainian war, the letter also underlined the US and NATO alliance’s interests in an F-16 sale. However, the project needs to be approved by Congress before moving forward (Hurriyet Daily News, April 7).

Turkey was expelled from the F-35 project, due to the potential risks posed by the Russian-built S-400s to the program’s security. It should be noted that Turkey’s ownership of F-16s was not articulated as a matter of concern in this vein. In other words, from a technical perspective, the sale of F-16s is a reasonable choice for the US. If Washington abstains from selling the Vipers to Turkey, this would push Turkey to reconsider other alternatives, despite the potential logistical risks of this decision. Moreover, this would be another negative signal for bilateral relations, after the imposition of the sanctions.

Turkey has long been one of NATO’s main burden-sharers in various Alliance operations. The essence of the modernization of the Turkish air fleet is, thus, critical to preserving this status in the future. Defense Minister Akar is optimistic about continued sustainable cooperation. Recently, he said, “We believe that the US will supply Turkey’s needs [F-16s]. I believe this issue will not be disregarded by the US administration considering the collective defense and interoperability [dimensions]. The meetings with members of Congress were positive and laid a favorable foundation to continue the dialogue” (Milliyet, June 1).

It seems Turkey wants to compartmentalize the defense dialogue and continue its cooperation with the US while opening new channels with Russia. The S-400s, therefore, remain an unresolved issue between the Washington and Ankara. Turkish Defense Industries President İsmail Demir stated that “the agreement with Russia is composed of the delivery of two packages. The first package has arrived, and the parties had agreed on technology transfer and co-production for the second package. The second delivery was delayed due to prolonged negotiations between Russia and Turkey” (TRT Haber, April 26). Demir’s statements can be read as a signal that S-400s will continue to occupy the agenda with Moscow in the future.

The war in Ukraine opened a window of opportunity for a positive agenda between the US and Turkey. However, the increasing tensions between Greece and Turkey (Al-Monitor, June 15, 2022; see EDM, May 31, 2019), Turkey’s resistance to Sweden and Finland’s NATO bid, and Ankara’s plans to start a cross-border operation in Syria have already started to once again tarnish Turkey’s image in Congress. Despite the Turkish desire to stimulate the process to obtain new F-16s, these above factors can all hinder Ankara’s initiative in the corridors of Washington.