May, 21

    Menendez maintains hold on Turkey F-16 jets despite Sweden NATO deal

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    WASHINGTON ― A key senator is refusing to lift his longstanding hold on the sale of 40 Block 70 F-16 fighter jets to Turkey despite the Biden administration’s announcement last week that it wants to move forward with the deal. The $20 billion potential sale also includes 80 modernization kits.

    National security adviser Jake Sullivan said the sale would proceed last week after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced at the NATO summit in Lithuania that Turkey would ratify Sweden’s NATO accession bid. But Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., told Defense News on Tuesday that he continues to use his position as Foreign Relations Committee chairman to block the sale.

    “I’ve always said that the ratification of Sweden, which should naturally occur, is not the sine qua non of why I would lift the hold on F-16s,” Menendez said. “There’s bigger issues than just that alone.”

    The U.S. State Department has held conversations with Menendez on his F-16 hold in recent weeks. Menendez told Reuters last week that if the Biden administration “can find a way to ensure that Turkey’s aggression against its neighbors ceases, which there has been a lull the last several months, that’s great but there has to be a permanent reality.”

    Greece in recent years has frequently complained of Turkish incursions into its airspace, and Erdoğan is slated to attend the opening of a new airport in Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus on Thursday.

    Cyprus was divided in 1974 when Turkey invaded in the wake of a coup aimed at union with Greece. Turkey recognizes a Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence.

    Turkey has also used F-16s in attacks on U.S.-backed Kurdish groups in northern Syria.

    Further complicating matters, Erdoğan has said Turkey will not ratify Sweden’s NATO membership until October at the earliest because the Turkish parliament has a two-month summer recess in August and September.

    Six members of the congressional Hellenic and Armenian caucuses sent a bipartisan letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken last week urging the Biden administration to attach “clear and substantive mechanisms to provide for the pause, delay or snapback” to the F-16 sale “if Turkey engages in actions that threaten or undermine U.S. national security interests and the unity of the NATO alliance.”

    “While we welcome the present pause in Turkey’s destabilizing actions in the region, it is important to stress the Erdoğan government has not changed policy,” they wrote in the letter led by Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H. “The impression that Turkey has improved relations with NATO ally Greece is belied by the fact that Ankara maintains a casus belli against Athens.”

    Greece is also pushing to join Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter co-production program; the U.S. kicked Turkey out of it in 2019 after Turkey purchased the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system. The U.S. fears the S-400 radar system could allow Moscow to spy on the stealth fighter jets. Both Turkey and Greece have lobbied against the respective U.S. aircraft sales sought by their neighbor.

    Menendez’s home state of New Jersey boasts the sixth-largest Greek American population in the U.S. and the fourth-largest Armenian American population.

    Despite his opposition to the F-16 sale, Menendez in April permitted a $259 million sale of avionics software upgrades for Turkey’s current F-16 fleet.

    “I’m opposed to F-16s, but this is not a sale of F-16s,” Menendez told Defense News after the State Department approved the avionics kit sale. “It’s a sale to ensure the interoperability of existing aircraft in the NATO command structure, and for that reason I support it.”

    Even if the F-16 sale eventually clears Congress, it’s unclear when Turkey would receive its new aircraft due to a manufacturing backlog for the in-demand jet.

    For instance, Taiwan is also waiting on 66 F-16s, which is an approximately $8 billion portion of a broader backlog in overall U.S. arms sales to the Asian nation that has run up to $19 billion.

    Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.

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