Why Turkey wants new F-16 fighter jets
In early October, Turkey requested to buy 40 new Lockheed Martin F-16V fighter jets along with 80 modernisation kits for its F-16 fleet from the United States.
The timing of the request, for a deal worth billions of dollars, came mere days after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on 29 September, met his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and discussed vastly expanding military cooperation.
The United States banned Turkey from purchasing fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II stealth fighters for its air force after Ankara bought advanced S-400 air defence missile systems from Russia. Turkey had planned to buy up to 100 F-35As to supplement its large F-16 fleet and replace its older F-4 fighters.
Turkey is developing a fifth-generation stealth fighter called the TAI TF-X. However, there isn't even a TF-X prototype yet, and the aircraft will not likely enter serial production for at least another decade.
"In early October, Turkey requested to buy 40 new Lockheed Martin F-16V fighter jets along with 80 modernisation kits for its F-16 fleet from the United States"
A truly fifth-generation aircraft is a very difficult, not to mention expensive, thing to develop and build. As a result, the TF-X might ultimately become a highly advanced 4.5-generation aircraft rather than a full-fledged fifth-generation one.
In the meantime, Turkey lacks 4.5-generation fighters it will need to maintain a relatively technologically advanced air force for the rest of this decade. That explains why Ankara is now hoping the US will sell it F-16s and the kits needed to upgrade many of its existing fighters.
Turkey is the third-largest operator of F-16s on the planet, behind only the United States and Israel, with 270 of the iconic jets forming the backbone of its air force. Turkey's F-16s are Block 30/40/50 models. The 40 new F-16s Ankara is seeking from the US are much more advanced Block 70 models. The Block 70 model of the F-16 is a highly advanced and formidable 4.5-generation jet.
F-16 manufacturer Lockheed Martin points out that the Block 70 even contains technologies developed for the fifth-generation F-35 and the F-22 Raptor.
"The F-16 Block 70 combines capability upgrades, most notably the advanced Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars with a new avionics architecture, and structural upgrades to extend the structural life of the aircraft by more than 50 percent beyond that of previous production F-16 aircraft," Lockheed Martin noted.
"Operational capabilities are enhanced through an advanced datalink, targeting pod and weapons; precision GPS navigation, and the life-saving Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (Auto GCAS)."
Forty brand new F-16 Block 70s and up to 80 modernisation kits would, therefore, go a long way in keeping Turkey's F-16 fleet up to date for the rest of the decade.
If the sale is not approved, however, that fleet could face difficulties down the road.
Turkey's older F-16s, especially the Block 30s, will either have to be phased out or substantially modernised and upgraded in the coming years as their airframes become worn and their systems become antiquated – which could have debilitating effects on its air force in the long-term if Ankara cannot procure adequate replacements.
This could soon become a reality. The US Congress can block Turkey's request for new F-16s and modernisation kits and might very well do so.
In a 25 October letter, 11 members of the House of Representatives from both the Democratic and Republican parties called on the Biden administration not to sell Turkey these aircraft.
"Following President Erdogan's September announcement that Turkey will purchase an additional tranche of Russian S-400 missile defence systems, we cannot afford to compromise our national security by sending U.S.-manufactured aircraft to a treaty ally which continues to behave like an adversary," the letter read.
"While we are confident that Congress will stand together to block any such exports should these plans progress, the United States cannot afford to transfer any advanced military equipment to the government of Turkey at this time," it continued.
"Turkey is the third-largest operator of F-16s on the planet, behind only the United States and Israel, with 270 of the iconic jets forming the backbone of its air force"
Previously, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also said that: "From my point of view, I do not see any new sales of [American] weapons systems in Turkey, unless there is a dramatic change in the conduct of the S-400s."
Congress has secretly blocked arms sales to Turkey since the NATO member ordered Russian S-400s.
Turkey, for its part, has frequently threatened in recent years that it could turn to Russia for weapons that the US refuses to sell it. In addition to S-400s, Turkey has intermittently hinted that it might buy 4.5-generation Russian Su-35 Flanker jet fighters or even the fifth-generation Su-57 Felon over the past two years. (It's worth bearing in mind that the Felon, like the recently unveiled Russian Su-75 Checkmate stealth fighter, will not likely be available for export in significant numbers for at least a decade.)
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu suggested that Turkey could do so as recently as 27 October.
Less than ten days earlier, the head of Turkey's Presidency of Defence Industries (SSB), Ismail Demir, also raised the prospect of Turkey turning to Russia for fighter jets.
"If the United States does not approve a deal on the F-16s after the situation with the F-35 aircraft, Turkey won't be left without alternatives," he said. "The issue of Su-35 and Su-57 planes may surface again at any time."
But that's a lot easier said than done for Turkey since the political and economic costs of procuring a significant number of Russian jets as alternatives for newer F-16s would be huge.
Turkish airpower has been predominantly American since the dawn of the jet age and since Turkey joined the NATO alliance back in 1952. Purchasing a substantive number of Su-35s to serve as a 4.5-generation stopgap solution would also require buying substantial quantities of accompanying munitions, missiles, and parts that are quite different from the ones Turkey has long used for its F-16s. Then there would also be the inevitable compatibility issues between the Russian-made Sukhois and Turkey's F-16s.
Ankara would also undoubtedly incur much more serious American sanctions than it has so far for buying S-400s under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) law, which imposes sanctions against any country that makes a "significant transaction" with Russia's defence sector. Turkey's SSB and Demir himself have already had CAATSA sanctions imposed on them for the S-400 procurement.
In the end, it would hardly be worth the cost.
"Procurements and upgrades could see the Hellenic Air Force become substantively more technologically advanced than the Turkish Air Force in just a couple of years"
In the meantime, the air force of Turkey's fellow NATO member and rival Greece is rapidly becoming much more advanced. The Hellenic Air Force already has a deal with Lockheed Martin to upgrade 84 of its F-16s to the Block 70/72 configuration, which will make them the "most advanced F-16s in Europe."
Furthermore, Greece is procuring 4.5-generation Dassault Rafale multirole fighter jets from France, which is also upgrading the Hellenic Air Forces' existing fleet of fourth-generation Mirage 2000 jets. Athens is also interested in the F-35.
All these procurements and upgrades could see the Hellenic Air Force become substantively more technologically advanced than the Turkish Air Force in just a couple of years.
For Turkey, getting approval to buy these F-16Vs and modernisation kits could be its last chance to ensure it has a capable and relatively modern air force for the foreseeable future.
Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.
Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon