Turkey’s search for fighter jets puts Biden in a bind

Turkey has a fighter jet problem. The decades-old Nato member was barred by the US from taking delivery of its order of more than 100 next-generation F35s that were meant to form the backbone of its air force — a punishment for Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to buy a Russian-made air defence system from Vladimir Putin.

Ankara one day hopes to fill the gap in its air force by building its own, Turkish-made fighter. But, with that aircraft far from ready, for now it is reliant on an ageing fleet of F16s.

That explains the recent request submitted by Ankara to Washington for 40 newer F16s, made by Lockheed Martin, as well as modernisation kits to upgrade close to 80 of its existing jets.

Turkey, which has been subject to US sanctions on its defence industry since in December 2020 because of the Russian S-400 defence system contract, argues the deal would be win-win. It would help Turkey update its air force at a time when Greece, its neighbour and long-standing rival, is buying French Rafale jets and American F35s. While the S-400 is seen by the US as a threat to the security of its fifth generation F35, the same problem may not arise with the older F16.

Not only would a deal be lucrative for the US defence industry, but it would also help mend strained relations with the US and western allies, who have no interest in Erdogan getting closer to Putin.

“There’s an opportunity here,” says Alper Coskun, a former Turkish diplomat now based in Washington at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “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.” 

But it is unclear whether the US will oblige. Congress, which can block the sale, is hostile to Erdogan for a long list of reasons, including human rights abuses and military operations against US-backed Kurdish forces in Syria.

Even if Joe Biden’s administration is more inclined to advocate on Erdogan’s behalf — as Ankara believes — the Turkish leader’s determination to buy Russian equipment by purchasing a second S-400 air defence system will not help. “In the future, nobody will be able to interfere in terms of what kind of defence systems we acquire, from which country, at what level,” he told the broadcaster CBS News days before submitting the F16 request.

The S-400 issue is the “main impediment” to getting the fighter jet deal through Congress, says Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East programme at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute. “Not from a threat basis, but from a pissed-off basis.” An angry Congress will probably want concessions from Erdogan on the Russian hardware that is already in Turkey and a commitment not to buy the second system. But the Turkish president, who accuses the US of failing to offer him an American alternative, is unlikely to cede ground.

The situation creates a bind for the Biden administration. Pressing for a green light to the F16 sale without any conditions would be seen by Turkey’s critics as unwarranted appeasement. But if the sale is rejected, Ankara will have found a ready-made excuse for turning to Russia.

Deeper Turkish defence co-operation with Moscow would not serve Ankara’s interests. Not only would it be likely to trigger further US sanctions, it would also be damaging for the expanding domestic defence industry Erdogan himself has championed.

Yet the worry is that he may feel he has no other option. During a 2019 trip to a Russian airshow where he ate ice cream with Putin and eyed up Russian defence kit, Erdogan asked his Russian counterpart, half jokingly, about buying one of his Su-57 fighters. Some western officials are now anxious that the quip could become a reality.

“If the Americans don’t approve this deal then what will Turkey do? They will buy Russian or Chinese,” says a European diplomat who is eager to see the F16s sale approved. “They have to fill this gap.”

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