The Biden administration announced on April 17 its approval of a possible foreign military sale to Turkey to support Ankara’s existing F-16 fighter jet fleet, totaling an estimated $259 million. Washington’s approval is likely related to Turkey’s approval of Finland’s application to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), although it remains to be seen whether an additional, much larger sale of new F-16s and additional upgrades will happen.
The April 17 sale is for “services to support upgrading [Turkey’s] current fleet of F-16 aircraft and related equipment.” If approved by Congress, Turkey would be able to acquire avionics upgrades, hardware modifications, software upgrades, support and training equipment, spare parts, and other related items and services for its F-16s.
Ankara has long sought to modernize its aging fleet of fighter jets. Until 2019, Turkey was on track to receive about 100 F-35s, the most modern fighter America produces. However, Washington removed Ankara from the F-35 program when Turkey, despite repeated American warnings, purchased the S-400 surface-to-air missile system from Russia. The acquisition also resulted in sanctions on Turkey under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).
Turkey has somewhat pivoted away from Russia after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, with Ankara supplying TB-2 drones, multiple rocket launchers, and other weapons to Ukraine. However, Turkey has remained a vector for Russian sanctions evasion, leading the Biden administration to sanction Turkish firms in April 2023.
Meanwhile, Ankara has renewed its drive to acquire both 40 new F-16 jets and upgrade kits for its existing F-16 fleet — a deal worth $20 billion. If Congress is to approve Ankara’s purchase of the jets and upgrades kits, there will likely need to be progress on other issues in the U.S.-Turkish relationship.
Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has opposed the sale of F-16s to Ankara, citing Turkey’s aggressive stance toward NATO ally Greece, Ankara’s poor human rights record, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s refusal to approve Sweden’s NATO membership bid. Washington may also want to elicit commitments from Ankara to stop attacks in Syria that endanger U.S. troops, such as the strike in November 2022 that struck Kurdish forces who were within 300 meters of U.S. servicemembers.
All of this takes place in the context of Turkey holding a presidential election on May 14, which will determine if Erdogan remains in office for a third term. Regardless of the outcome, it is widely expected that Ankara will ratify Sweden’s NATO membership bid. But that by itself may not be enough to lift congressional objections to selling new F-16 fighter jets to Turkey. And if Erdogan seeks to extend his 20-year tenure by rigging or nullifying the May 14 elections, his relations with Washington are likely to deteriorate rapidly.
This article was originally published by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The views and opinions expressed above are the author’s and do not reflect those of the Free Turkish Press.