U.S. Moves Closer to Selling F-16 Fighter Jets to Turkey

Source: www.nytimes.com : 2022-06-29 13:02:15 : Michael D. Shear and Steven Erlanger

MADRID — The United States on Wednesday signaled a new willingness to sell upgraded F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, moving closer to satisfying the ally’s longstanding request a day after Turkey dropped its opposition to efforts by Finland and Sweden to join the NATO alliance.

Senior American officials had said just hours earlier that President Biden did not bargain with Turkey in exchange for its support for expanding NATO. A senior administration official told reporters late Tuesday that Turkey had not asked for the F-16s during the negotiations.

But a top defense official was blunt, if imprecise, when asked by a reporter on Wednesday about the administration’s support of Turkey’s push for a more modern air force.

“Strong Turkish defense capabilities contribute to strong NATO defense capabilities,” said Celeste Wallander, an assistant secretary of defense. “The U.S. Department of Defense fully supports Turkey’s modernization plans for its F-16 fleet.”

She added that efforts to help Turkey acquire the advanced planes “need to be worked through our contracting processes,” but she said that the United States “supports Turkey’s modernization of its fighter fleet, because that is a contribution to NATO security, and therefore American security.”

Mr. Biden is scheduled to meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey on Wednesday afternoon. Officials said the presidents would discuss a broad range of topics related to the mutual interests of both countries. But Ms. Wallander’s comments suggested that the Turkish request for F-16s was likely to be a top priority.

The timeline for any potential deal between the United States and Turkey on fighter jets is unclear, and an agreement would likely require approval from Congress.

Bilateral relations with Turkey have been under strain for some time, and Turkey has lost support in Congress as well. Mr. Erdogan has over the years become more authoritarian, more mercurial and more difficult as an ally, while increasing repression at home of political rivals and independent journalism.

He blames an exiled cleric who lives in America — Fethullah Gulen, whom Washington has refused to extradite — for a 2016 coup attempt. And Mr. Erdogan has played a balancing game with Russia, choosing to buy a sophisticated missile defense system, the S-400, despite American and NATO opposition.

In response, the United States removed Turkey from involvement in the newest, most advanced American fighter plane, the F-35, and introduced some sanctions. Since then, Turkey has asked to buy 40 older fighters — the F-16, but modernized — plus modernization kits for another 80 F-16s.

In March, after Russia invaded Ukraine, the State Department wrote to Congress, saying that the sale of the F-16s would be in line with U.S. national security interests and would also serve NATO’s long-term unity, but did not explicitly support the deal.

The letter acknowledges strained relations but describes Turkey’s support for and defense ties with Ukraine as “an important deterrent to malign influence in the region.”

Before leaving for this week’s NATO summit in Madrid, Mr. Erdogan said that the F-16 sale would be an important issue in his meeting with Mr. Biden. Mr. Biden has been instrumental in urging Turkey to lift its block on the NATO membership applications of Sweden and Finland, which he did on Tuesday night.

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