Ankara may acquire F-16s, but US-Turkey ties remain strained

U.S. President Joe Biden has signaled a transactional approach in his engagement with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been one of the most consequential yet complicated members of the transatlantic military alliance. The two discussed the issue of Sweden's NATO accession and Turkey's request to overhaul and expand its fleet of American-made F-16 fighter jets. The White House and Turkish government have rejected suggestions of a quid pro quo between the transatlantic military alliance's expansion and a weapons sale. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that both issues "should go forward as quickly as possible." In response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Finland, and Sweden applied for NATO membership in May 2022.


Ankara has long sought to purchase 40 F-16 fighter jets made by U.S. company Lockheed Martin and nearly 80 modernization kits for its air force's existing warplanes, a $20 billion transaction. The U.S. Congress has objected to F-16 sales for reasons beyond NATO enlargement. In April, Washington approved a $259 million sale of avionics software upgrades for Ankara's current fleet of F-16 fighter aircraft, but Sweden's bid is still held up due to Ankara's belief that Stockholm is harboring "terrorists" from the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Swedish lawmakers have passed legislation tightening the country's anti-terrorism laws, expected to help persuade Turkey. U.S. and Swedish officials have expressed hope that Sweden's membership will be confirmed by the time NATO leaders meet in Vilnius, Lithuania, in mid-July.


Erdogan is likely to leverage his support for Sweden, but he is also a pragmatist. U.S.-Turkish ties will remain fraught, with James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, saying that solid ties with Ankara will be strategic in terms of containing Russia, Iran, and terrorist movements in the region. However, Erdogan's friendly ties with Ankara has responded to the war in Ukraine with its own strategic interests, condemning the invasion and restricting Russian warships and military flights across its territory. 


Ankara has maintained good ties with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and provided aid and drones to Ukraine. The Turkish decision to acquire S-400 air defense systems remains the thorniest issue for the U.S., as Washington insists it won't allow Ankara back into its F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program until Ankara abandons the Russian-made weapons. Biden will host British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen next week to discuss the issue of NATO enlargement, including how to get Ankara on board.


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