Turkey’s desire to conclude a new fighter jet deal with the United States poses a dilemma for U.S. President Joe Biden, the Financial Times’ Turkey correspondent Laura Pitel said on Thursday.
The Turkish Air Force is dependent on ageing F-16 fighters, leaving it at risk of being left behind by regional rivals such as Greece and the United Arab Emirates, both of which are in line to receive next-generation F-35 aircraft from the United States.
Turkey was removed from the U.S.-led F-35 programme after acquiring the S-400 missile defence system from Russia in 2019, and has since been seeking alternatives, including developing its own domestic-made fighter jet.
In the meantime, however, Ankara is seeking a modernise and expand its existing fleet of F-16s, asking Washington last week to approve a new deal with U.S. manufacturer Lockheed Martin, a move Pitel said could help repair ties between the two NATO allies.
“There’s an opportunity here,” Pitel cited former Turkish diplomat Alper Coşkun as saying. “This would guarantee that the Turkish defence industry, or at least a significant element of it, would continue to be embedded in the transatlantic relationship. It’s a way out of the dilemma that we’re facing that would have a ripple effect in a lot of other areas.”
U.S.-Turkey relations have been troubled in recent years by differences over Kurdish-led forces in Syria, and Ankara’s growing willingness to cooperate with Moscow. In December, former U.S. president Donald Trump imposed sanctions on Turkey’s defence industry over the S-400 purchase, a move long pushed for by U.S. lawmakers.
The Russian-made missiles are the “main impediment” to the U.S. Congress approving the sale of F-16s to Turkey, Arron Stein, director of the Middle East programme at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, told Pitel. “Not from a threat basis, but from a pissed-off basis.”
Biden therefore faces a dilemma, Pitel said. Either the U.S. president approves the F-16 deal and risks being accused of appeasing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Or he rejects the sale and gives Erdoğan an excuse to deepen Turkey’s defence relationship with Russia.
“If the Americans don’t approve this deal then what will Turkey do? They will buy Russian or Chinese,” Pitel cited a European diplomat as saying. “They have to fill this gap.”