The United States has offered F-16s and F-18s to the Indian Air Force and Navy. India should examine how the US handles its closest allies once they sell these platforms. The use of Pakistan Air Force F-16s is restricted, despite the fact that the situation is now favourable to India. Unlike Pakistan, which depends on the US and China for survival, Turkey has a more robust economy and a military-industrial backbone.
A Turkish military delegation is in Washington for a new round of negotiations for purchasing fourth-generation F-16 fighter jets. Although the administration of President Joseph Biden looks favourably on the idea of modernizing the fleet of its NATO ally in the Middle East, the US Congress has serious reservations.
The trip to the United States of a technical group of representatives of the Turkish Ministry of Defense is the fourth round of consultations on aircraft. Ankara has requested 40 F-16 Block 70 fighters and 80 Block 70 kits from the US to upgrade its existing combat aircraft after being barred from the F-35 manufacturing programme owing to the purchase of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems (SAMs). Ned Price, a State Department spokesman, confirmed the conversations the day before, adding that the focus was on maintaining Turkey compliant with NATO and the alliance’s advanced military weapons.
In mid-July, the House of Representatives of Congress tried to make deliveries to Turkey as difficult as possible by approving an amendment to the defense budget, which imposes additional requirements on transferring F-16s to the Republic. In particular, the initiative prohibits the executive branch from selling to Ankara or issuing a license to export new F-16 aircraft, as well as components for their modernization, until Congress receives confirmation from the White House that such a transaction would be in the national interests of the United States. Moreover, the Biden administration would have to verify that the F-16s are not utilized for “repeated unlawful flights” over the territory of neighbouring Greece.
The US executive branch is more loyal to the need to modernize the Turkish fleet. So, last month, Erdogan said that during personal interaction, Biden “did not set any conditions” on Greece. During the lengthy meeting in June, Erdogan said that both the countries must respect each other’s laws as members of NATO. Biden then said regarding the F-16 issue that he would do everything in his power to implement the deal, adding that there are not so many members of Congress who oppose the sale.
Although not at a higher official level, Ankara is letting the American military sector know that there are alternatives. A retired General Erdogan Karakush advised that Erdogan explore the idea of obtaining French Rafale fighters with his colleague Emmanuel Macron. If the Biden administration is compelled to refuse Turkey’s request to sell and improve the F-16, the Turkish side might simply turn to other manufacturers, according to the former military commander. Ankara is banking that this type of transaction is only a temporary solution: the Republic’s military industry is working on its own fifth-generation TF-X fighter programme. But, a fifth-generation fighter is very costly to fly, and Ankara will still require lesser-generation fighters in the future.
A lot of speculation has been circulating in recent years that Erdogan, at some stage of friction with the West, may give the green light to the acquisition of Russian-made fighter jets to compensate for all the needs of the Turkish fleet, but this scenario will be associated with the risk of expanding American restrictive measures against Ankara based on the Countering America’s Enemies Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), as well as the issue of lack of interoperability with the infrastructure of the North Atlantic Alliance, which American officials traditionally emphasize in discussions about the quality of communications between Turkey and the West.
The suggestion of the Turkish side to turn to France looks especially interesting. France and Turkey are quite different in terms of political, trade, economic, cultural and religious relations. Many differences remain between them, including the supply of Rafale fighters to Greece. Nevertheless, the foreign policy of both countries is based on national interests, or rather, the interpretation and understanding of these interests by the leading political elites. At the same time, France required as many sales to support technology development and its independence from the United States.
It is important to note that Turkey has a strong knowledge and industrial basis to support its F-16 fleet, which is similar to what India is aiming for with its fighter acquisition. But, Turkey lacks the technology to update its F-16s despite its much-touted military-industrial complex. This might be the situation for India in the future. Before selecting its future combat aircraft fleet, India must assess the risks. Turkey may be forced to rely on Russian or European sources, as India currently does. Should India ever find itself in the same situation as Turkey?