It has been reported that Turkey has applied to the USA to purchase 40 new F-16 fighter jets and 80 upgrade kits. This demand was a surprise to many when the USA excluded Turkey from the F-35 program, seized the F-35s it has already paid for because of buying Russian S-400 air defense missiles, and imposed military sanctions on its NATO ally. Plus, US President Joe Biden claimed that the US failed to finish ISIS in Syria, because of the Turkish cross-border anti-terror operations against the PKK (which we will dwell on separately). However, Turkey’s application for the purchase of a new model F-16 jet might be a litmus test for both the USA and Turkey. It will show whether Turkey-US relations come to a crossroads in the strategic dimension.
The official reason for the USA to remove Turkey from the F-35 program, of which it is a co-producer, and to seize its aircraft, was that the Russian S-400 missiles can steal the F-35 secrets if they both operate within the Turkish Air Force network due to their artificial intelligence capabilities. F-16s has no such capabilities as a 4th generation platform, not a 5th generation one like the F-35s. The rejection of the new batch of F-16 jets will mean that the White House and Congress do not want to sell any weapons to Turkey because of the S-400s. That will weaken both the NATO defense (as Turkish F-16s just returned from a 3-months Baltic patrol mission from Poland) and the Turkish Air Force, because of a political obsession. You ask why?
Turkey relied on F-35s
Turkey became a part of the F-35 co-production program from the beginning of the early 2000s. The strategy was to shift the backbone of the Turkish Air Forces from F-16’s to F-35s from the 2010s on. However, relations between the two “constrained allies” became more strained as Turkey could not purchase Patriot missiles from the US and instead bought S-400 missiles from Russia. Under Donald Trump, the US began to impose military sanctions on Turkey.
This situation put Turkey at risk of an air defense deficit. According to Can Kasapoğlu, a researcher at the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), this meant that Turkey’s airpower entered its “most difficult decade”. On the one hand, Turkey cannot buy F-35s. On the other hand, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been offering to sell Su-35s, Su-57s to President Tayyip Erdoğan.
Turkey produces F-16s under the agreement between the US General Dynamics company and TAI in 1987, but the number of products and capabilities have been by that agreement. According to official records, the Turkish Air Force has owned 270 F-16C/D (Block 30/40/50/50+) aircraft in this way. However, a total of 25 F-16s has been lost by 2021. As of 2021, Turkey has a total of 245 F-16s, including 158 F-16Cs and 87 F-16Ds. The desired aircraft are the F-16V supermodel known as the “Viper”; update kits for upgrading 80 of the existing aircraft to this model. Turkey’s request also coincided with the new French-Greek defense agreement that might change the military balance in the East Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea.
Why does it mean a test?
Not just -if the US rejects- it would imply that the US does not want to sell weapons to Turkey any longer, regardless of the S-400 justification. It will also show the degree of myopic view of the US on European and Middle Eastern issues.
Because, if the sale of F-16 jets to Turkey is refused, just like the Patriot/S-400 issue, Turkey might enter into bargaining with Russia to buy warplanes. It would not be that difficult for Erdoğan to use rhetoric like; “We need to increase my airpower until I can produce and fly my own National Combat Aircraft (MMU)”. In such a case, after getting tangential to NATO’s air defense (via the S-400s) Russia will have a place in the airstrike force of a key NATO member country like Turkey. That can also be an example for NATO’s Eastern European countries.
For Turkey, the test will show whether the USA will continue to be a reliable ally at this juncture. So, in a sense, Erdoğan asked Biden indirectly, “Are we still friend, or foe?”, ahead of a meeting in the premises of their face-to-face talk with him, reported to take place in the premises of the G20 summit in Rome on October 30-31.
It is not difficult to guess that Putin is among those who will wait for the answer to such a question.