Reuters news agency published news a few days ago about Ankara's desire to buy 40 F-16 fighters from the US, as well as purchasing 80 modernization kits to service its existing warplanes, after Turkey was excluded from the F-35 program and denied access to those planes since Ankara purchased the S-400 air defence system from Russia.
This surprising news, which was reported during the continued tension in Turkish-American relations, indicates that it was Ankara that asked the US to buy F-16 fighters instead of F-35 fighters. However, there are observers who believe that this deal was proposed by Washington as a "compromise" to overcome the F-35 fighter jets crisis and not endanger the southern wing of NATO, even if the official request came from Ankara.
The justifications provided by Washington for the refusal for Turkey to obtain F-35 fighters do not apply to F-16 fighters and, therefore, the deal has no obstacle other than the negative position of the US Congress. Turkish officials believe that the Biden administration's position on Ankara's request is "positive", and that the task of convincing Congress of the necessity of completing this deal falls on the shoulders of the US administration.
Turkey's request to purchase F-16 fighter jets from the US is a new test for the already tense Turkish-American relations, as well as of Washington's attitude, in general, towards its NATO ally. It is expected that the Biden administration's handling of this request will either push Turkey further away from the US, or improve relations between Ankara and Washington, albeit to a limited extent. This is because the US has no reason to justify its rejection of the request, if it is not hostile to Turkey and sees it as a threat to its interests. In other words, the ball is now in America's court.
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Turkey may turn to other countries to buy alternative fighter jets to strengthen its air force, if Washington rejects Ankara's request. Many observers believe that Turkey may buy the fighter jets it needs from Russia, as well as the S-400 air defence system, to get closer to Moscow. However, others point out that Russian fighters are not the only alternative, and that Ankara may buy them from Britain or France. Whatever Ankara chooses, America will have no reason to blame Turkey, after it refused to sell the F-16 fighters to the latter. It is worth noting that former US President, Donald Trump, admitted that the crisis with Turkey was primarily caused by the Obama administration's reluctance to sell the Patriot missile system. He said he did not blame Turkey for buying the Russian S-400 system.
There is an upcoming meeting between Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and US President, Joe Biden, at the end of this month in the Italian capital, Rome, on the side-lines of the G-20 summit. It is expected that this file will be on the negotiating table to determine the course of Turkish-American relations, in addition to the fate of the deal.
Turkey still wants to acquire the F-35 fighters it paid for to the US and hopes to return to its manufacturing program, which is Turkey's first choice, as indicated by presidential spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin. If its first choice is not possible, the second choice would be to buy a number of F-16 fighters and get back the $1.4 billion it paid Washington—this way, instead of waiting for the amount paid for F-35 fighters to be transferred back from the US to Turkey.
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Turkey's ultimate goal is to rely entirely on national industries to meet the needs of its army, and there are a number of projects that are in full swing that are working towards this. Among those projects is the production of a Turkish fifth-generation fighter to enter service within a few years. However, the Turkish army needs to modernise its air fleet so that its defence capabilities are not affected by any weakness or defect until it receives the national fighters.
US State Department spokesman, Ned Price, declined to comment on a question about Turkey's request to buy F-16 fighters, saying that it is not possible to comment on arms deals before they are presented to Congress. It is a well-known fact that there are lobbies in the US, such as the Armenian lobby and the Greek lobby, in addition to the Gulen group, which seek to block the deal and prevent Turkey from obtaining those planes, by putting pressure on members of Congress. However, the American administration will, ultimately, decide where Turkey will fall on its list of considerations, priorities and its foreign relations map.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 13 October 2021
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.