US stresses Nato interoperability as Turkey pushes F-16 sale

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says US has offered to sell Ankara F-16 fighter jets as compensation for expulsion from F-35 programme

The US on Monday stressed that it prioritises Turkey’s interoperability with Nato after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Washington had offered to sell Ankara F-16 fighter jets.

Mr Erdogan claimed at the weekend that President Joe Biden’s administration has offered to sell Turkey the F-16 aircraft as compensation for its expulsion from a co-production programme to build top-of-the-line F-35 fighter jets.

Turkey currently maintains a fleet of more than 200 F-16 aircraft, approximately 100 of which require upgrades.

“As a matter of policy, the [US State Department] does not confirm or comment on proposed defence sales or transfers until they have been formally notified to Congress,” a State Department representative told The National.

“The United States strongly values its partnership with its Nato ally, Turkey. The United States and Turkey have long-standing and deep bilateral defence ties, and Turkey’s continued Nato interoperability remains a priority.”

State Department spokesman Ned Price clarified that the US has not made an offer to help Turkey finance any potential F-16 sale, as it sometimes does for allies seeking to purchase expensive American military hardware.

"We would refer you to the Turkish government to speak to its defence procurement plans," Mr Price told reporters at a State Department briefing.

"What I can say is the United States has not made any financing offers on Turkey's F-16 request."

Turkey lost $1.4 billion in the F-35 coproduction programme after the US expelled it in 2019 over its $2.5bn purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defence system.

The US fears that the powerful S-400 radar system could allow Russia to spy on its military hardware.

But Washington has left the door open to Turkey rejoining the F-35 programme if Ankara abandons the Russian missile system.

Turkey has so far refused to relinquish the system, and instead, Mr Erdogan began a public push to convince the US to reimburse it for its F-35 investment last month.

Mr Erdogan is expected to meet Mr Biden on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Italy at the end of the month.

“We made a $1.4bn payment — what will become of that?” Mr Erdogan asked reporters after a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last month.

“We did not — and do not — earn this money easily. Either they will give us our planes or they will give us the money.”

In addition to its removal from the F-35 programme, Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 system prompted the US to sanction Ankara as required under a Russia sanctions law known as the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (Caatsa), which Congress passed in 2017.

The sanctions could complicate any potential F-16 sale as they include a ban on all US export licences and authorisations to Turkey’s Presidency of Defence Industries, Ankara’s military procurement agency.

The sanctions also include an asset freeze and visa restrictions on Ismail Demir, the agency’s president, as well as other Turkish officials.

Mr Biden’s nominee to serve as ambassador to Turkey, former Republican senator Jeff Flake, told Congress last month that those sanctions will remain in place until Turkey abandons the S-400 missile system.

“I will also warn Turkey that any future purchase of Russian weapons risks triggering further Caatsa sanctions in addition to those already imposed,” said Mr Flake.

Updated: October 18th 2021, 8:43 PM
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