The strained bilateral relationship between Turkey and the United States has come into the limelight once again. At the end of September, Turkey sent a letter of request to the United States, expressing its desire to purchase forty state-of-the-art F-16 fighter jets as well as modernization kits for eighty of its aging planes.
Turkish officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have insisted that the request was initially suggested by the United States—but the U.S. State Department spokesperson declined to comment.
This incident was a good reminder of the fragility of Turkey’s relations with its friends. On the U.S. side, bipartisan discontent in Congress with Turkey’s actions on a number of issues adds to the challenge, and U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration might be reluctant to entertain Ankara’s request. Should the United States oblige Turkey’s request?
U.S. Interests in Making the Sale
An overriding, long-term strategic interest could change U.S. calculations. After Ankara’s decision to purchase the Russian S-400 air defense system, Turkey was pushed out of the fifth generation F-35 stealth fighter jet program by the United States. But the United States has a stake in preventing the Turkish air force from distancing itself from the Western defense industry ecosystem.
As a result, the prospect of reviving long-term defense industry cooperation with Turkey, combined with lucrative U.S. business interests, could well change the tide in favor of the F-16 deal going through.
Turkey’s production of F-16 fighter jets in the late 1980s was the pinnacle of defense cooperation between the two countries. It involved the assembly of over 300 jets for Turkey and forty-six for Egypt, as well as numerous modernization programs. Turkey’s latest request may provide an opportunity to carry this tradition into the future—especially when the bilateral relationship is in desperate need of repair.
Concrete Policy Outcomes for Washington
By agreeing to the request, the Biden administration could check multiple boxes. It could
- continue to deprive Turkey of F-35s as punishment for its S-400 acquisition,
- showcase this strict policy enforcement to Congress,
- use this exacting policy as a warning for other countries toying with the idea of buying Russian systems,
- concurrently advance the U.S. defense industry’s financial interests through an F-16 sale reportedly valued at around $6 billion, and
- utilize this sale as a basis to rekindle bilateral defense industry cooperation with Turkey.
By fulfilling Turkey’s F-16 request, the United States could also disincentivize Ankara from pursuing alternate paths, such as deeper defense industry cooperation with Russia. Practical and financial considerations, most notably related to interoperability, maintenance, and training, make it highly unlikely that Turkey would contemplate migrating away from NATO standards for its air force. But Turkey may have political considerations for looking elsewhere.
Some analysts argue that defense decoupling in the Turkey-U.S. alliance is already materializing. In fact, the head of Turkey’s Presidency of Defense Industries Ismail Demir, who reports directly to Erdoğan, has pointed out that there are alternatives if Turkey’s request to purchase F-16s were rejected, noting in particular Russian SU-35 or SU-57 fighter jets. This comes after statements by Erdoğan that Turkey may deepen its defense industry cooperation with Russia—and even possibly purchase an additional batch of the S-400 air defense system.
It would be a mistake for the Biden administration to sleepwalk into such an eventuality, which could quickly become difficult to reverse. As the S-400 debacle has proven, NATO adversaries are the only ones that would stand to benefit from such a development.
An Opportunity to Seize
Turkey’s gambit has put the onus for improving the bilateral relationship on the Biden administration. The F-16 deal has become a litmus test for the future of the relationship.
According to a study conducted in 2021, more than 64 percent of Turks think negatively of the United States’ approach vis-a-vis Turkey, up from 55 percent in 2020. By contrast, slightly over 50 percent of Turks surveyed in 2021 define the relationship with Russia as cooperative. Should Ankara’s request for F-16s be denied, the standing of the United States in Turkey can be expected to get even worse.
The Biden administration has a tough decision ahead. Congress can be expected to put up a stiff fight against the sale, and if Biden wishes to see the deal through, he will be required to expend some precious political capital. But it could well be worth it.
Keeping Turkey in the fold is a matter of strategic importance for NATO and the United States. By making this request, Turkey has signaled its readiness to stay that course.
Washington should seize the opportunity. Who knows? This might kick-start some much-needed positive momentum in Turkey-U.S. engagement—and maybe even create a more widespread ripple effect in the countries’ bilateral relations.