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US-Turkish Fighter Jet Feud Risks NATO Crisis at Crucial Time for Ukraine

A simmering dispute between the United States and Turkey, officially known as Türkiye, over the supply of fighter jets has the potential to not only further disrupt bilateral ties but introduce a rift among NATO states at a time when Ukraine is seeking further aid, including aircraft .

This feud started in 2019, when Washington announced it was suspending the $2 billion sale of advanced F-35 aircraft to Ankara after it went through with the purchase from Russia of state-of-the-art S-400 surface-to-air missile systems.

Since then, yet another spat over fighter jets has emerged, as the US has indefinitely held back the sale of an F-16 modernization package amid ongoing protests from lawmakers who want to see Türkiye first approve bids by Finland and Sweden to join NATO.

But even if this feud is resolved, which would require the two Nordic nations acceding to Türkiye’s demands that they crack down on alleged Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) activity at home, Cagri Erhan, a member of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Presidential Council on Security and Foreign Policies, told Newsweek that “F-16s cannot in any case substitute F-35s.”

Noting that “even the US air force itself is no longer purchasing F-16s,” Erhan argued that only the latest aircraft should be made available to Türkiye, especially as the F-35s have been sold to fellow NATO ally yet Turkish rival Greece.

“Why should Türkiye accept F-16s instead of F-35s, while the US is selling F-35s to Greece?” Erhan, who serves as a rector at Altinbas University, asked. “As a matter of fact, the real problem is not the hesitance of US lawmakers to sell F-16s to Türkiye but to continue to block providing F-35s, for which Türkiye already paid 2 billion USD.”

In the meantime, Erhan said Ankara was already eyeing other options, including platforms from both allies and non-allied nations. In fact, Erdogan has already warned he was looking at aircraft from China and Russia, along with European nations.

“Arms markets have a growing number of sophisticated suppliers,” Erhan said. “From North American and European NATO allies to Asian powers at least 15 companies are producing modern fighter jets. Seven out of 10 top advanced fighter jets are being produced by non-US companies according to reliable aero ranking authorities. Three of them are European brands .”

“Moreover, Türkiye has its own ‘national fighter jet’ program,” he added. “Diversification both in brands and supplier sources is the only method to avoid future political noise of interest groups. Defense dependency to a single country often makes a country vulnerable to foreign political pressure.”

Such pressure could already be felt in Washington, where some leading lawmakers have called on President Joe Biden not to go through with the sale even of F-16s to Türkiye. Senior voices opposing this move include key members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, including the chair, Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, and the ranking member, Republican Senator Jim Risch of Idaho.

Some 29 other senators issued a letter to Biden last month linking their own opposition toward selling F-16s to Türkiye to the country’s refusal to ratify Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership, something the legislators argued “threatens the Alliance’s unity at a key moment in history, as Russia continues its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.”

Erhan, however, argued that it was the efforts of anti-Turkish lobbying, including a nearly 60-year history of “biased and non-friendly behavior of certain political groups in US politics,” that was fraying the alliance.

“Those groups were and now are directly involved with anti-Turkish lobbies and use every opportunity to ‘punish’ Türkiye,” Erhan said. “Their attitude did not and does not help to strengthen the Euro-Atlantic alliance.”

Asked about the status of the F-16 deal as well as the potential implications for NATO of the deal falling through, a US State Department spokesperson told Newsweek that, “as a matter of policy, the Department will not confirm or comment on proposed defense sales or transfers until they have been formally notified to Congress.”

“The Biden Administration supports Türkiye’s efforts to modernize its F-16 fleet,” the spokesperson said. “The United States and Türkiye have longstanding and deep defense and security ties, and Türkiye’s continued NATO interoperability remains a priority.”

The Turkish Embassy in Washington, DC also highlighted the importance of NATO allies being able to use equipment capable of being integrated among the armed forces of member states.

“Turkiye’s continued interoperability with NATO is of utmost importance, not only for Türkiye, but also for NATO’s continued deterrence at its southern flank,” the embassy told Newsweek. “The US Administration acknowledges, at the highest levels, that upgrading Türkiye’s F-16 fleet is in the national interest of the US”

The Turkish embassy also highlighted how central the US has been to Türkiye’s military development.

“The US has been Türkiye’s number one partner in defense industry,” the embassy said. “We still count on our close cooperation with the US defense industry in order to maintain our military capabilities.”

Given this importance, the embassy appealed to US lawmakers not to tie further cooperation to other policy issues.

“We expect members of Congress to look beyond short-term political aspirations and not put preconditions to the sale of military equipment to Türkiye,” the embassy said.

A simmering dispute between the United States and Turkey, officially known as Türkiye, over the supply of fighter jets has the potential to not only further disrupt bilateral ties but introduce a rift among NATO states at a time when Ukraine is seeking further aid, including aircraft .

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