Recently, Turkey and the United Kingdom (UK) held talks that reportedly covered the possible sale of a large package of weapons, including fighter jets, transport planes, engines, and frigates, according to a report by Middle East Eye citing three separate sources familiar with the discussions.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar visited London on January 15 and met with his British counterpart, Ben Wallace.
The sources familiar with the talks told Middle East Eye (MEE) that Akar and Wallace explored the possibility of Turkey buying Eurofighter jets, C-130J transport planes, and Type 23 frigates, as well as engines for Turkey’s outdated M60 battle tanks. Such a deal, according to sources, would amount to over $10 billion.
“We are evaluating our options on these platforms, but we aren’t in the final stages of negotiations,” said one of the Turkish sources, who spoke to MEE anonymously.
While a UK Defense Ministry spokesman told MEE that the Defense Secretary met with his Turkish counterpart to discuss strengthening defense ties between the two countries, they discussed several topics, which included acquisitions as well, and progress was made in several areas.
Turkey’s F-16 Conundrum
The latest news comes amid reports of difficulties being faced by Ankara in acquiring 40 new Block 70 F-16 jets and 79 modernization kits for its existing F-16 fleet due to the opposition in the US Congress.
On January 18, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu met his US counterpart Antony Blinken in Washington to secure a $20 billion arms sale, including the new F-16 aircraft as well as the upgrades.
However, the US State Department has yet to notify the Congress of the potential deal formally, and a key American lawmaker has declared that he would block the sale.
Senator Bob Menendez, who chairs the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, has repeatedly said that he will use his position as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee to block the sale. So far, he has not shown any signs of backing down from his position.
“I strongly oppose the Biden administration’s proposed sale of new F-16 aircraft to Turkey,” Menendez said in a statement.
“Until Erdogan ceases his threats, improves his human rights record at home — including by releasing journalists and political opposition — and begins to act as a trusted ally should, I will not approve this sale,” he continued.
US officials have reportedly told their Turkish counterparts that dropping the conditions Turkey has set for Sweden to become a NATO member will help remove opposition to the F-16 deal in Congress.
However, that seems very unlikely at the moment, considering Turkey’s recent cancellation of the planned visit by the Swedish Defense Minister Pål Jonson, reportedly aimed at overcoming Turkey’s objections to its NATO membership, after the Swedish government allowed protests in front of the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm which included the burning of a Quran by an anti-immigrant politician from a far-right political party and a separate demonstration by Kurdish activists.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms the vile attack on our holy book … Permitting this anti-Islam act, which targets Muslims and insults our sacred values, under the guise of freedom of expression is completely unacceptable,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement following the incident.
Likewise, the Turkish Defense Ministry said that a planned visit to Ankara by the Swedish defense minister had been canceled due to a lack of measures to restrict protests.
“At this point, the visit of Swedish Defense Minister Pal Jonson to Turkey on January 27 has become meaningless. So we canceled the visit,” Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said.
Turkey’s existing F-16s are nearing the end of their lifespan, and the country finds itself in a problem, as it had planned to meet its medium-term air defense needs based on the acquisition of fifth-generation F-35 jets.
However, the US government officially kicked Turkey out of the F-35 program in 2019 after Ankara decided to purchase the Russian S-400 air defense system.
Meanwhile, the US Congress holds the key for the potential sale of F-16s to Turkey. Also, even if Congress clears the sale, Turkey may still have to wait until it receives the new jets amid the backlog in F-16 production.
“We have a significant backlog for F-16s,” Erin Moseley, vice president of strategy and business development for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, told Defense News in July last year.
In an earnings call last year, Lockheed Chief Financial Officer Jay Malave said that the F-16 backlog was 128 fighters. For example, Taiwan is also awaiting the delivery of its 66 F-16s, which roughly constitutes an $8 billion portion of a broader backlog in overall US arms sales to the Asian nation, which, as we have reported earlier, exceeds $14 billion.
Turkey Is Considering Buying 4++ Gen Fighters
Amid possibilities of the US rejecting Turkey’s request for F-16s, Ankara is considering multiple options, including the Eurofighter Typhoon, the French-made Rafale fighter jet, and the Russian-made Su-35.
In September last year, Turkey’s presidential spokesperson, speaking to the local NTV news channel, said, “We have negotiations with Europe regarding Eurofighter; Turkey will never be without alternatives.”
Turkey is reportedly seeking to acquire the latest Tranche 3A or Tranche 4 model of the Eurofighter Typhoon. According to an unnamed industry insider cited by MEE, it was looking to purchase two squadrons of Eurofighters, amounting to between 24 to 48 units.
Another source, who also spoke to MEE on anonymity, said Turkey’s Eurofighter acquisition could be difficult since it would require a lot of technical adjustments and training within the Turkish Armed Forces.
However, the same source also noted that the Turkish military was becoming increasingly familiar with the platform since Qatar is also believed to have sent some of its Eurofighter jets to Turkey under a bilateral agreement that allows Doha to deploy its aircraft and air force personnel in Turkey.
That said, Turkey’s acquisition of Eurofighter, produced by a consortium of the UK, Germany, Spain, and Italy, would depend on approval from the other three countries. Notably, Turkish-German relations are not always good.
Also, Berlin has traditionally adopted a cautious approach toward weapons requests from Turkey, as it is still blocking the exports of some critical materials for the Turkish arms industry.
Another option Turkey has, is that of French Rafale, as stated before. Last year in July, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan allegedly expressed interest in purchasing Rafale fighter jets from France in a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron.
France has already signed a deal with Turkey’s arch-rival Greece to supply 24 Rafale fighter jets, six of which were delivered in January 2022.
To counter the threat from Hellenic Air Force’s fleet of Rafales, Turkey reportedly decided to train its fighter pilots on Rafale fighter jets of the Qatar Emiri Air Force (QeAF) so that Turkish fighter pilots would be familiar with the platform and its capabilities, as per our previous report.
Apart from that, there is also the option of a Russian-made Su-35, as hinted at by Turkey’s Defense Industry Agency President Ismail Demir, who said in September that the country has alternatives if the acquisition of US-made F-16s fails, and those include Su-35 as well.
However, according to experts, Turkey is unlikely to acquire a Russian aircraft due to several problems. Seyyid Çakır, an Istanbul-based defense enthusiast, previously told that there are apparent technical difficulties to Su-35 acquisition, like integrating NATO munitions with Russian-made aircraft.
“Then there are the obvious political limitations on purchasing additional Russian equipment given CAATSA and NATO membership. In my opinion, it could be done but unlikely,” Çakır noted.
Turkey would be better off acquiring a 4++ generation fighter jet, as compared to the F-16s, which are 3.5 generation fighters with 4th generation capabilities, considering Greece has already requested a squadron of 5th generation F-35 stealth fighter jets from the US, and the same officials who are opposing the sale of F-16 to Turkey are also firmly supporting a potential sale of F-35 to Greece.
“This defense capability is not only critical for a trusted NATO ally and enduring partner’s efforts to advance security and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean but also strengthens our two nations’ abilities to defend shared principles, including our collective defense, democracy, human rights and the rule of law,” Senator Bob Menendez said of the potential F-35 sale to Greece.
As We have has discussed at a great length earlier, a 4++ generation fighter jet can pose a significant challenge to the fifth-generation F-35 aircraft despite the latter’s stealth capability.