US poised to give green light to Turkish defense modernization deal
US President Joe Biden’s administration was expected to give the green light for the long-awaited sale of defense modernization kits to Turkiye ahead of key Turkish elections on May 14.
The package, which Turkiye had requested in October 2021 for its existing F-16 aircraft fleet, will include radars and avionics software upgrades, Reuters reported.
The process had remained in limbo as a result of several breakdowns in relations between Washington and Ankara.
America’s move is believed to be related to Turkiye’s recent approval of Finland’s NATO membership bid and ongoing de-escalation of tensions with its neighbor Greece.
However, a planned $20 billion sale of new Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters to Turkiye will not be included in the package. That deal has yet to be approved by the US Congress.
The US State Department was now expected to send formal notification to Congress for the sale of $259 million worth of modernization kits after congressional committee leaders recently gave informal approval for the sale.
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Arab News: “(The US move) tells the Turkish government that if it wins the elections in a fair way, more may come in at the following stage.
“It also tells the opposition that if it wins, it should favor a reset in Turkish-US relations and develop strong ties with Washington by setting the S-400 (Russian missile system) issue.
“Therefore, the US signals that this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what it can do together with the opposition if it wins. So, this is a sort of carrot simultaneously,” Cagaptay added.
If Congress gives formal approval to the process, the modernization package will be the first major military deal with Turkiye that it has agreed in years, with Lockheed Martin Corp. being the main contractor.
Cagaptay noted that the US government wanted continuity in its defense ties with Turkiye. The upgrade of the F-16 fleet would boost interoperability between Turkish and NATO military systems through the adoption of updated communications technology and new safety measures such as a ground collision avoidance system.
But experts have pointed out that Congress will first want to see Ankara approving Sweden’s bid to join NATO and give assurances over its close military and political ties with Russia.
Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara office director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said the US Congress would have 15 days to adopt a joint resolution of disapproval against the sale.
“However, this is unlikely as the transaction is relatively small compared to Turkiye’s request of 40 F-16s in addition to these modernization kits and more significantly to the F35s Greece is on its way to acquiring by 2028,” he added.
Unluhisarcikli noted that Turkiye’s upgrading of its airforce would be in the interests of the US and NATO given Ankara’s role in the military alliance’s southern flank.
On the timing of the decision one month before important elections in Turkiye, he said: “If the opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu wins the upcoming elections and becomes Turkiye’s 13th president, one can expect the Turkiye-US relationship to be set on a more positive trajectory which means the F-16 deal would be easier to achieve.
“However, even if President Recep Tayyip Erdogan retains his office, the relationship can at least normalize and it would still be possible to proceed with the F-16 sale, particularly after Turkiye ratifies Sweden’s NATO accession.”
However, tensions still remain in relations between America and Turkiye.
Erdogan recently criticized US Ambassador to Turkiye Jeff Flake for meeting the country’s opposition leader and candidate for the presidential elections, Kilicdaroglu, ahead of elections, and said that doors were now closed on the envoy.
“Shame on you, use your head. You are an ambassador. Your interlocutor here is the president. We have to teach America a lesson,” Erdogan added.