How denying Turkey upgraded F-16s could consolidate Greece’s emergent airpower advantage

Turkey’s aging fleet comprised of mostly F-16 jets could fall behind Greece’s upgraded air force by 2030 if the United States refuses to sell it modernised aircraft and modernisation kits, analyst and journalist Paul Iddon said in an article for Forbes magazine on Friday.

Ankara’s plans for air force modernisation have suffered as the country was removed from the fifth generation F-35 development program upon its purchase of Russian-made S-400 missile defence systems. And while Turkey won some goodwill in Washington following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “Erdoğan’s more recent opposition to Finland and Sweden’s admission into NATO … could swiftly undo that," Iddon said.

In the best case scenario, Turkey’s fleet would still be outmatched by Greece’s, which would have more and better equipped aircraft from the United States and France, Iddon said.

A full reproduction of the article follows below:

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visited the White House and Congress in mid-May to make Greece's case for acquiring fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II stealth jets while simultaneously urging the U.S. government against selling Turkey additional modernised F-16s and upgrading its fleet. If Ankara is denied this upgrade, the Hellenic Air Force (HAF) could become technologically superior to its Turkish rival by the end of the decade.

“We will launch the process for the acquisition of a squadron of F-35 aircraft, and we do hope to be able to add this fantastic plane to the Greek Air Force before the end of this decade,” Mitsotakis said at the White House.

The following day, May 17, in an address to Congress, Mitsotakis was clearly referring to the proposed F-16 deal with Turkey when he said, “The last thing that NATO needs at a time when our focus is helping defeat Russian aggression is another source of instability on NATO's southeastern flank. And I ask you to take this into account when you make defence procurement decisions concerning the eastern Mediterranean.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reacted furiously.

“We had agreed to not include third countries in our dispute with him,” Erdoğan said on May 23. “Despite this, last week, he had a visit to the United States and talked at the Congress and warned them not to give F-16s to us.”

“He no longer exists for me,” he added. “I will never agree to meet with him. We will continue our way with honourable politicians.”

Erdoğan's outburst was hardly surprising. Ever since Turkey got booted out of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program and banned from buying any of those jets in 2019, following its acquisition of advanced S-400 air defence missile systems from Russia, the future of its air force has been in question. Turkey's F-16s have long been the backbone of its air force, but they are gradually aging and, in the case of the Block 30 models in particular, becoming increasingly obsolescent.

Turkey knows this. In October 2021, it requested to buy 40 brand new Block 70/72 F-16s, the latest and most advanced model, along with 80 upgrade kits for its existing jets, in a deal valued at approximately $6 billion. Securing such an agreement is essential for keeping Turkey's F-16s operational and up-to-date for the next decade until Ankara can gradually begin replacing them.

If Mitsotakis's efforts to persuade Washington to reject this deal are successful, Turkey could be left with an F-16 fleet that would become hopelessly outmatched by its western neighbour’s much more advanced fighters by the end of the decade.

That process is already beginning to happen. Greece has already won approval to upgrade 84 of its F-16s to the Block 72 Viper configuration. The first HAF F-16 upgraded to that standard made its maiden flight in January 2021. Lockheed Martin expects the upgrade program to be completed by June 30, 2027, which will give the HAF “the most advanced F-16s in Europe”.

France is also upgrading Greece's supporting fleet of Mirage 2000s, and Athens is procuring a fleet of at least 24 4.5-generation Dassault Rafale jets of the latest F3R standard, which are more advanced than any jet in the Turkish arsenal. Greece already took delivery of six Rafales in January. Adding a squadron of about 18-24 aircraft F-35s to this formidable fleet by the end of the decade could drastically alter the balance of airpower over the Aegean Sea in an unprecedented way.

Congress had already secretly blocked arms sales to Turkey since 2018 over the S-400 issue and other disagreements with Turkish policy under Erdoğan. However, U.S. President Joe Biden has signalled he would advocate on Turkey's behalf on the F-16 sale. In May, it was reported that the administration informally sought Congress's approval for the sale of AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles for Turkish F-16s. While that much smaller deal, estimated to be around $300 million, was separate from Turkey's request for additional F-16s and upgrades, its approval could signal potential support for that deal and future Turkish requests.

While Turkey won some goodwill in Washington following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Erdoğan’s more recent opposition to Finland and Sweden’s admission into NATO and his concurrent threats to launch another operation against U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in northern Syria could swiftly undo that. Similarly, any hardball attempt to extract compromises (such as accepting those Nordic countries admission into NATO in return for F-16s or a green light to attack the Syrian Kurds) could backfire and harden the already widely held view in Washington that Turkey is a chronically unreliable ally so long as Erdoğan is at the helm.

Even if Turkey does ultimately win approval for the F-16 deal, it would likely take until the second half of this decade at least to take full delivery of the new jets and fully upgrade the 80 existing ones. And by then, those 120 F-16s, the most advanced jets in the Turkish Air Force, will likely find themselves up against 84 equivalent F-16s in the HAF that will supplement at least 24 Rafales and possibly 24 F-35s as well.

In that scenario, Greece would have 134 fighters that could qualitatively and quantitatively outmatch Turkey's 120 best jets. And that would be in the best-case scenario for Ankara.

(The original version of the article can be found here.)

This block is broken or missing. You may be missing content or you might need to enable the original module.