Biden Administration says selling F-16s to Turkey in U.S., NATO interests

The U.S. government said a possible sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey would be in the interests of the United States and NATO’s long-term unity.

The State Department made the statement in a letter to Congress, Reuters reported late on Wednesday.

Turkey has made a request to purchase 40 F-16s and almost 80 modernisation kits for existing warplanes. The United States had thus far not expressed an opinion on the potential sale.

The United States has excluded NATO ally Turkey from a programme to develop and purchase the stealth F-35 fighter jet after it bought S-400 air defence missiles from Russia in 2019. In December 2020, former U.S. President Donald Trump sanctioned Turkey’s defence procurement agency and its top official under pressure from a bipartisan group in Congress.

The letter seen by Reuters, dated March 17 and signed by Naz Durakoglu, acting assistant secretary of state, acknowledges the strained relations with Turkey, but said Ankara’s support for Ukraine and its defence ties with the country had provided “an important deterrent to malign influence in the region”.  Turkey’s exclusion from the F-35 programme and sanctions against its defence procurement agency were a “significant price paid”, it said.

"The Administration believes that there are nonetheless compelling long-term NATO alliance unity and capability interests, as well as U.S. national security, economic and commercial interests that are supported by appropriate U.S. defence trade ties with Turkey," the letter said.

The sale would require a Congressional notification should the State Department approve it, according to the letter.

Turkey has sold armed drones to Ukraine and slammed Russia’s invasion of the country. But President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government has forged close ties with Russia in the fields of defence and energy – it relies on Russian natural gas to fuel economic growth – and in tourism. Russia supplies the most visitors for Turkey’s tourism industry, which is an essential foreign currency earner.

Reuters said the State Department letter was sent in response to a February letter signed by Democratic congressman Frank Pallone and supported by more than 50 legislators from both sides of the aisle urging the White House to reject Ankara's request to buy the F-16s, citing Erdoğan's lack of commitment to NATO and his "vast human rights abuses".

Turkey had ordered more than 100 of the F-35 jets from Lockheed Martin, which also makes the F-16s. It has demanded that it be reimbursed for a $1.4 billion down payment.

Erdoğan told Biden in a telephone call last month that it was time that the United States lifted the “unjust” sanctions on Turkey. He said he expected his government’s request for the F-16s to be finalised as soon as possible.

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