As the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden seeks to secure NATO enlargement with the accession of Sweden and Finland, it is dealing with requests by Turkey and Greece to purchase fighter jets, the latter being less controversial and more likely to be approved.
Analysts speaking to VOA said the outcome of the proposed sale of F-16s to Ankara and F-35s to Athens would impact the air defense capabilities of the two neighbors and the power balance in the region.
Turkey requested to buy 40 F-16 Block 70 fighter jets, the most advanced of their kind, and nearly 80 modernization kits from the United States to upgrade its aging fleet of other F-16s. Greece sent a request to buy 20 F-35s, plus 20 more down the road. Turkey was removed from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program almost three years ago because of its purchase of the S-400 missile defense system from Russia.
Both proposed sales require approval by Congress. Some U.S. senators, including Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, oppose the F-16 sale to Turkey, citing several concerns about Turkey’s relations with Russia and its persistent blockage of NATO expansion. The Greek request for the F-35s is seen as more likely to be approved.
Some experts say a scenario where Turkey is not able to get the F-16s but Greece is approved for the F-35s could give Athens the upper hand in terms of aircraft technology in the long run.
“If Turkey cannot get the F-16s and modernize its aircraft as opposed to Greece having the F-35s, upgraded F-16s as well as the Rafale jets it purchased from France, this brings the risk of tilting the air superiority in favor of Greece,” Sinan Ulgen told VOA. Ulgen is the chairman of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy research group and a visiting fellow at Carnegie Europe in Brussels.
He argued that if the process gets stalled, Turkey might investigate other options available in the NATO system, such as the Eurofighter Typhoon developed by a consortium of defense companies in the U.K., Germany, Italy and Spain. He added that Ankara is also working on the production of its own national combat aircraft.
Jim Townsend, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy, said the United States has been successful in terms of managing the balance between the two NATO allies despite their many spats over the years and would not let things get to a point where that balance could significantly shift. Townsend is currently an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security Transatlantic Security Program.
Sweetening the deal
U.S. experts previously speaking to VOA suggested that a deal on F-16s for Turkey could be dependent on whether Ankara drops its objection to Sweden and Finland’s joint NATO membership bid.
Townsend argued that the administration’s position on F-16s may be a bargaining chip if it signals it’s prepared to work with Congress and use its leverage to get the sale approved — provided that Turkey gives them assurances on NATO’s enlargement.
Turkey had been involved in trilateral talks with Finland and Sweden to try to persuade them to do more to address its security concerns, including the repatriation of individuals whom it considers to be affiliated with terrorist groups.
Angered by a recent protest in Stockholm outside the Turkish Embassy in which far-right anti-Islam activist Rasmus Paludan burned the Quran, Turkey postponed the next round of those talks indefinitely.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, at a joint news conference with his Serbian counterpart, Ivica Dacic, accused Sweden on Thursday of not taking serious steps to address Turkey’s concerns, saying “a trilateral meeting would not make sense” under the circumstances.
Window of opportunity
U.S. and NATO officials hope to resolve the differences by July, in time for NATO’s summit. Before that happens, Turkey will hold elections in mid-May. Some analysts predict that the election could be the nation's most consequential vote in generations.
Experts speaking to VOA said it would be beneficial if a solution could be found in the two months between Turkey’s elections and the NATO summit.
“We are used to nations extracting concessions within the alliance over various policy issues," Townsend told VOA. "Every nation has its national agenda. But they eventually will compromise. Once that election goes by, if Turkey continues to obstruct, I think it'll be a lot of harsh words behind closed doors.”
Ulgen said he expected the issue to be resolved after the elections, saying Turkey would not want to be blamed for the stall.
In an opinion piece for Bloomberg earlier this week, former NATO commander Admiral James Stavridis wrote that the alliance needs Turkey to continue being an active and positive member and needs to have Finland and Sweden on board.
“No one wants to have to choose between them,” he wrote, putting the onus on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to ensure that that doesn’t have to happen.
Townsend agreed, adding that Turkey should not be moving the goal posts or stretching out the decision to gain more concessions after the elections.
"Otherwise, we are in some uncharted territory,” he warned.