Congress signals openness to sale of Turkish F-16s as part of Ukrainian cooperation

WASHINGTON — Turkey’s 2017 purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system notoriously turned it into a pariah on Capitol Hill, prompting Congress to lead the way in kicking Ankara out of the fighter jet program F-35 stealth.

But Turkey’s support for Ukraine, including through the export of armed drones and diplomacy with Russia, has presented Ankara with an opportunity to bolster its tarnished image in Congress. If he plays his cards right, the NATO ally could convince Congress to authorize the purchase of about $6 billion of 40 Block 70 F-16 fighter jets and about 80 modernization kits of Lockheed Martin to modernize its existing fleet.

Several key lawmakers who were instrumental in expelling Turkey from the F-35 program have cautiously signaled to Defense News that they may be inclined to allow Ankara to buy the F-16s after the Biden administration suggested that such a sale could serve the security of NATO and the United States. interests.

Still, Congress wields considerable power to block potential arms sales, and lawmakers have made it clear that a transfer of F-16s would depend on Turkey’s continued support for Ukraine even as it attempts to strike a delicate balance in its relations with the United States and Russia amid myriad other regional conflicts.

“We need to talk and work with Turkey and others who are working with us against Russia,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks, DN.Y., told Defense News. “They showed moves in the right direction. There are other things we still need to work with Turkey, some things that still irritate us sometimes.

Meeks did not assume the chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs Committee – a position that allows him to block arms sales – until 2021, well after Congress first codified Turkey’s expulsion from the F-35 program in the government funding bill of 2019.

Other Democrats and Republicans who fought tooth and nail to exclude Turkey from the program also signaled that they would not use their power to block a possible sale of F-16s.

“I’ve spoken to several of the parties involved in this matter,” Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, told Defense News. “The Turks presented a credible argument as to why they should get the F-16s.”

“I’m positively disposed in that direction, but I’m not completely there yet,” he added.

Turkey has regularly maintained a fleet of older F-16s since the 1980s as Ankara seeks to modernize.

Risch also stressed that the F-16s are “a different case” than allowing Turkey to receive the F-35s.

Washington has blocked the transfer of advanced F-35 fighter jets to its NATO ally over fears the S-400’s powerful radar system could allow Russia to spy on the advanced aircraft, compromising the technology.

The S-400 purchase also prompted the United States to sanction Turkey’s military procurement agency in 2020, as required by a Russian sanctions law. But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sought a detente with his NATO allies in recent years.

The office of Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Defense News: “We expect Turkey to continue to stand with its allies in the NATO who support Ukraine as it defends its homeland. ”

“The war in Ukraine is not over,” McCaul’s office said. “We expect that if the administration seeks congressional authorization for this sale, Turkey will still play a constructive role in the conflict, but will also address concerns about Turkey’s role in other global conflicts. “

At home, Erdogan presented his request for the sale of F-16s as potential compensation for Turkey’s sunk investments following its expulsion from the F-35 co-production program. And he pushed Biden for the sale during a meeting last October.

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan went out of his way last week to thank Turkey for helping secure the release from Russia of imprisoned U.S. Marine Trevor Reed.

“We need a relationship with Turkey; we have to find a way to rebuild that,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., told Defense News. “The president is probably about to try to balance it. It’s hard because the S-400 has complicated our relationship in many ways, but it’s not a relationship we can let go of.

Smith and a host of lawmakers passed legislation codifying Turkey’s ban on the F-35 program in the annual Defense Authorization Bill – language that remains on the books.

Reuters reported last month that the State Department sent a letter to Congress stating that “there are compelling, long-term interests in NATO unity and capabilities, as well as national security, U.S. economic and commercial interests, which are supported by appropriate U.S. defense trade ties with Turkey.

The letter came in response to a question from Rep. Frank Pallone, DN.J., and a bipartisan group of more than 50 other House members as they urged Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the secretary to the Lloyd Austin Defense to reject the sale of the F-16. for Turkey.

The Energy and Commerce Committee, chaired by Pallone, has no jurisdiction over arms sales. But senior senator from Pallone’s home state of New Jersey, Democrat Bob Menendez, is in a position to unilaterally block the F-16 sale given his status as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

“At some point we have to decide whether Turkey is the kind of NATO ally we expect or not,” Menendez told Defense News. “He is acting contrary to our interests in a whole host of things. I think the administration needs to stop seeing from the ambitious part of what we would like Turkey to be and realize that Turkey is under Erdogan.

Menendez infuriated Turkey in 2019 by passing legislation to partially lift a decades-old arms embargo on Cyprus, the same year the House and Senate both passed resolutions recognizing the Armenian Genocide for the first time. .

While the Ukraine crisis has presented a unique opportunity for Turkey to reverse its tattered reputation on Capitol Hill, Menendez and several lawmakers continue to castigate Ankara over tensions in the eastern Mediterranean as well as its military role in conflicts ranging from from Armenia and Azerbaijan to Syria. and Libya.

Bryant Harris is the congressional reporter for Defense News. He has covered the intersection of US foreign policy and national security in Washington since 2014. He has previously written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.

Laura J. Boyer