Turkish-American defense cooperation is at a crossroads, and set to be a flashpoint during the Erdogan-Biden G20 meeting later this month.
At the beginning of the 1980s, Turkey made a decision to purchase a total of 160 F-16s, the Fighting Falcons, the history of which dates back to 1974. In February 1983, Major General Sadi Kaban, Colonel Zubeyir Batur, and Major Okan Oncel went to the US to try out the F-16, F-18, and F-20.
Following long negotiations, terms that the purchased aircrafts would be produced in Turkey were agreed upon by the US during the undersigning of the contract. Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) and Tusas Engine Industries (TEI) were established in collaboration with the Turkey–US partnership and became the joint manufacturers of the F-16 aircraft.
The first eight aircrafts were produced in Fort Worth and delivered to Turkey in 1987. As part of the production, 152 F-16s were assembled in Turkey and entered into the inventory of the Turkish Air Force, where they remained until 1994.
The 1991 Gulf War was another turning point for NATO member Turkey on the F-16 project. After this period, a new F-16 project called "Oncel II" was initiated, and the contract was signed to manufacture 80 more F-16s with the new generation Block 50 configuration at TAI facilities.
For this project, Turkey succeeded in producing F-16s at a rate of 80 percent of domestic materials, and the second phase was completed with the last aircraft joining the inventory in 2000.
Turkey did not manufacture F-16s only for itself within this period. The manufacturing of 46 F-16 aircrafts, purchased by Egypt from the US, took place in Turkey.
It will be beneficial to underline an important piece of information here: Turkey manufactured a total of 278 F-16s, including 46 for Egypt, over the period of 12 years. While 29 of these aircraft were deemed "free of error," three were recorded as being in an "excellent" condition.
The aviation researchers who have been following this subject closely stated, "An aircraft with a free-of-error condition is a qualification that can be obtained by not encountering any faults during the tests carried out before the delivery to the Turkish Air Force. The excellent aircraft is used for the test flights of TAI, the Turkish Air Force, and also the US Air Force, for an aircraft that does not have even the slightest fault."
Based on the fact that only nine of the 3,000 plus F-16 aircrafts in the world are considered "excellent," it can be understood more clearly what kind of success Turkey has achieved in the production of F-16s.
According to the 2020 World Air Forces report, there are 245 airplanes in the Turkish Air Forces' inventory. The total number of aircraft entered into service is 270, but we can say that there are only 245 F-16 fighter jets currently in service due to accidents and defects. It is expected that a large number of aircraft will be grounded permanently by 2030.
On September 30, I learned that Ankara sent a letter of request (LOR) to the Pentagon for 40 F-16 Block-70s and the modernisation of 80 additional F-16s through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) Channel. The forwarding of this letter following President Erdogan’s CBS interview on September 26 was not a coincidence.
President Erdogan’s statement at the time is very much worth a reminder: ''The defense systems are different, air forces are different. Because in terms of air force capabilities, my question is that there is any guarantee that the US...will continue to sustain the production of F-16s. Since there will be no such guarantee, it is obvious that we will have to take very different steps."
The procedure is quite arduous when it comes to Turkey's new F-16 demands. First, the Pentagon will meet with manufacturer Lockheed Martin, and if deemed appropriate, then a price outline will be drafted. The Office of Regional Security and Arms Transfers at the State Department's Office of Political-Military Affairs (PM/RSAT) manages the FMS approval process in close collaboration with the Department of Defense's Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA).
Once approved, the amount for 40 F-16 sales has to be approved by Congress since the sale amount is close to $4 billion. This is only for the purchase of a new aircraft. At least $2 million is to be spent on airplane modernisation. And it is worth mentioning that within the scope of the FMS, the US manages approximately $55 billion annually in new defence equipment sales to foreign allies and partners.
Lead up to the Biden-Erdogan G20 meeting
The F-16 issue between Turkey and the US will certainly be on the agenda during the meeting expected to be held between President Erdogan and President Biden at the end of October.
The Biden administration clearly emphasises that as long as Turkey does not give up on the S400s, Turkey will not be able to return to the F-35 program; as a matter of fact, if Turkey purchases new S400s, new sanctions will be inevitable.
For the US, realising Turkey's demands is difficult since the convergence between Turkey and Russia in defence dealings is perceived as a national security threat. Even if President Biden were to approve the $6 billion sale and modernisation of the F-16s, it would be extremely challenging for the approval to pass through Congress.
During the ambassador's nomination hearing on September 28, Senator Bob Menendez said, "No Turkey arms sales as long as it possesses Russian S-400s." Many members of Congress hinted to the media that passage for approval of the F-16 project will be difficult. That is to say that Congress will consider the demands of Turkey as long as it refrains from working with Russia's defence industry. As you may recall, Congress blocked a $1.2 million sale of Sig Sauer handguns supposed to be delivered to President Erdogan's bodyguards in 2017.
Leaving the negative atmosphere in Congress aside, we know that the Department of State and Department of Defense are uneasy when dealing with Turkey, especially on defence. I cannot see that Turkey will be able to solve the F-16 project with the US quickly without any problems under these conditions.
I can say that we have entered a crucial period, especially for the future of the Turkish Air Force. However, as of now, Turkey will either get closer to Russia and move away from the US in defence matters or try to solve problems within NATO and fulfil certain demands.
In any case, Turkey should and will continue investing in domestic and national defence technologies, including the National Combat Aircraft (MMU) Project.
Turkish-American defence cooperation is at a crossroads, making many opposing groups, especially Greece, happy because Turkey's new F-16 letter request was also covered in the Greek press.
Currently, eyes are on the Biden-Erdogan meeting at G20 - a meeting that could be the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning.