Turkey is heading to elections next month, as the country continues to ruffle feathers in Washington with its policies in Syria and Iraq. A drone strike that targeted US anti-ISIS partners in Sulaymaniyah was a recent example of an action exacerbating the latest tensions.
However, the US administration doesn’t want to anger Ankara too much and has pushed through a small deal for upgrading Turkey’s fleet of F-16 fighter jets.
The deal, said to be worth $259 million, was approved through the State Department for sale of defense items and services, according to reports at Reuters and elsewhere.
Turkey looking to upgrade its Air Force
Turkey would reportedly like to buy 40 more F-16s, but Congress has blocked this procurement because of Ankara’s continued anti-US actions in Syria, where Ankara often carries out drone strikes against the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is a partner of the US.
Turkey was removed from the F-35 program after buying Russia’s S-400s, but is still requesting some 80 modernization kits for its F-16s. It has more than 200 F-16s, including the F-16C and D models. The F-16A was initially developed and flew in the 1970s and also has a two-seater B version.
Turkey acquired aircraft from several “blocks” – or variants – of production lines of the F-16, including block 30, 40 and 50. The first block 50 of the aircraft was delivered in the 1990s and is the aircraft that Turkey generally uses. In 2005, Turkey sought to upgrade around 80 of the block 40 and 50 of the aircraft. Later, Ankara requested to buy the new block 70 of the aircraft.
F-16s are expensive, costing around $18m. in the 1990s - today, they cost $25m. Turkey wanted to buy billions of dollars’ worth of new aircraft, with up to $20 billion in potential sales, but the US slammed the brakes despite a push by the White House earlier this year.
Instead, a paltry $259 million deal was announced this week for the upgrades, reportedly for the avionics and automatic ground-collision avoidance system. The US calls Ankara a NATO ally, but this is largely semantics because Ankara has not behaved like an ally. Additionally, the US appears suspicious of Turkey’s intentions as it plows money into its own weapons programs, including drones and other types of unmanned combat aircraft.
Paltry in comparison
The size of the Turkey F-16 deal can be ascertained from reporting on other recent F-16 deals. In 2019, for instance, Croatia sought to buy 12 older F-16s from Israel for $500m., while last year, Pakistan sought out a deal to upgrade eight F-16s for $450m. Singapore also discussed contracts worth almost $1b. to upgrade 50 of its F-16C/D planes according to reports in 2020. Chile, which has several dozen F-16s, sought upgrades worth $634m., according to a Defense News article from 2020.
As these deals unfold, Ankara is still running into trouble in Washington with defense procurement. Its continued airstrikes in Iraq and Syria and its destabilizing activities are not making it new friends in the West.
Ankara also continues to prevent Sweden from joining NATO after keeping Finland waiting for a year, and does not appear to be helping Ukraine with resupply for its Bayraktar drone fleet. Pro-Ankara media highlighted the success of the drones last year, but most of the drones don’t appear to be flying these days.
This leads to questions about claims that Ankara has customers lined up for its drones and other weapon systems that it continues to show off. Turkey recently announced a new warship to carry drones and said it launched a new observation satellite over the weekend. Without the upgrades for all its F-16s and the ability to buy more, it is unclear where Turkey will turn to make sure its air force has the latest technology.