Russian Su-35 Fighters ‘Challenge’ Rafales, Eurofighter Typhoons As Turkey Struggles To Get Approval For F-16s From The US

On September 9, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that if the US failed to fulfill its pledge to provide Turkey with the F-16 fighter jets, Turkey might turn to other countries, like Russia.

In an estimated $6 billion agreement, Turkey asked for 40 F-16 fighter jets and almost 80 modification kits in October 2021 to upgrade its aging fleet.

Turkey, which has made clear that it is firmly opposed to any restrictions on the sale of the Lockheed Martin-produced F-16s, currently faces a new obstacle due to a bill recently approved by American senators. 

In July, the US lawmakers passed legislation that forbids the sale to Ankara unless the Biden administration declares that doing so is necessary for US national security. It should also detail the actions taken to ensure they are not used for unlawful overflights of Greece.

US President Joe Biden said he would try to persuade lawmakers to deliver the F-16 fighters to the Turkish Air Force. In June, Erdogan recalled Biden telling him he “will extend all the support he can regarding F-16s.”

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Erdogan expressed optimism that the United States would “not lead” Turkey down “different tracks,” saying, “The US is not the only one selling warplanes in the world. The UK, France, and Russia sell them as well. 

Turkey F-16
File Photo: Turkey F-16

“It’s possible to procure them from other places, and others are sending us signals,” he told reporters on September 9. The Turkish leader commented before a meeting with President Vladimir Putin that is slated to take place at a regional summit in Uzbekistan next week. 

Erdogan has slammed the West for orchestrating “provocations” against Russia and attributed Europe’s energy crisis to western sanctions.

Robert Menendez, head of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said that giving Turkey F-16 fighter jets won’t happen until Ankara alters its foreign policy and upholds its NATO pledge by rejecting Russia’s S-400 missile defense system.

The lawmaker also voiced alarm about reports that Turkey was contemplating acquiring more S-400 missile defense systems from Russia, allegedly violating US sanctions. He urged Ankara to think twice about its ties to Moscow. 

The procedure for finalizing the defense bill, known as the NDAA, is lengthy, and the Senate will also have to support similar language before it can be brought to Biden’s desk for signing. The bill’s current version will very indeed be revised. However, the US President has the authority to veto such laws. 

Controversy Over S-400 

Turkey was previously a partner in the F-35 development program. However, its involvement in the program was suspended in 2019 due to Ankara’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 air defense system, and the country was eventually kicked out of the project. 

In 2021, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the United States had advised that Turkey purchase fourth-generation F-16 fighter jets rather than fifth-generation F-35s. The transfer of US arms to Turkey also became problematic because of the acquisition of Russian-made S-400 defensive missile systems. 

Reports that Greece is putting pressure on the US to prevent Washington from selling Turkey modernized F-16 combat planes, citing its security concerns, exacerbate the issue. 

File Image: S-400 Missile

Additionally, Ankara’s strategic ties with Washington have long been strained over problems including Turkey’s dismal human rights record and US support for a Syrian Kurdish force that Erdogan considers “terrorists.” 

Charles Gramaglia, a US-based national security analyst and former US Navy commander believes that “Erdogan intends to motivate the US to follow through on the F-16 sale.

The F-16 is a highly reliable, high-performance strike fighter capable of carrying precision air-to-ground weapons and the full scope of air-to-air missiles. The Turkish Air Force has operated the F-16 for over 30 years, and Turkey’s aerospace industry has a similarly long history of building and servicing the aircraft.” 

He made the point that one must consider the massive support system surrounding this aircraft in Turkish service, including the upkeep, training of air and ground crews, etc.

“To seek a new aircraft from a third nation supplier will be remarkably expensive, not so much for the cost of the aircraft, but developing the decades-long support infrastructure,” he added.

Which Aircraft Will Turkey Procure?

If the United States does not approve the sale, Turkey may explore purchasing jets from France, the United Kingdom, or Russia, as suggested by the Turkish President.

Given this, the French-made Rafale fighter jet, the Eurofighter Typhoon, and the Russian-made Su-35, Su-57, or even Checkmate will be the main competitors in that case. 

Earlier, it was reported that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could turn to France for Rafale fighter jets. Gramaglia believes that France will be willing to sell the Rafale fighters to Turkey, despite their differences.

He pointed out, “France’s primary strategic interest is in the Eastern Mediterranean. If Greece and Turkey are equally armed and capable, that is likely to stabilize further those nations’ enduring military face-off.” 

“Additionally, selling French Rafale’s to Turkey will be a boon for French Aerospace Industry and would have the added benefit of selling to a long-term customer of American aircraft after the US “stole” the Australian Navy as a customer for new submarines,” he added.

Gramaglia explained that France has a long history of selling aircraft and their associated support systems to foreign countries. This is a feasible alternative for Turkey, and it is unquestionably better (if significantly more expensive) than the Russian-made Su-35.

Regarding the Eurofighter Typhoon, Seyyid Çakır, an Istanbul-based defense enthusiast, told the EurAsian Times that “the UK is a strategic partner in many domains with Turkey. The acquisition of Typhoon fighter jets looks the most likely out of the three options you put forward. I think it is also the option most supported by Turks.” 

He explained that the Eurofighter Typhoons are capable aircraft, and the British are already involved in developing Turkey’s fighter jet project, the TFX, through BAE systems and Rolls Royce.

“If the F16 deal falls through, the Typhoons are the most likely next option, and it seems like the British have put forward this option numerous times to officials in Ankara,” he noted. 

On the other hand, Gramaglia said that he doesn’t think the UK would support a Eurofighter/Typhoon sale to Turkey.

“The US and UK have worked closely on numerous programs, most obviously the F-35/Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. To sell to a long-term US customer could have needless political repercussions. This is a viable option if, and only if, the US makes it state policy to never sell to Turkey.”

He further said that “the only realistic Russian option is the Su-35 (a derivative of the 1980s Soviet Su-27). The Su-57 Felon and Su-75/Checkmate will not be available in adequate numbers for decades. Sukhoi cannot yet produce an adequate inventory of Su-57 Felons for the Russian Air Force, let alone the export market.”

“I anticipate the Su-75 Checkmate will go the way of the 1980s-era American F-20 Tigershark. The F-20 program was built for the export market, but other nations were little interested in an aircraft that the country of origin (the US) declined to purchase for its air force. Despite some high regard for the F-20, it was a commercial failure. I expect the Su-75 program will similarly fail,” Gramaglia added.

File Image: Su-57-& Su-75 (Checkmate)

Returning to the Su-35, it hasn’t shown much promise in the battle over Ukraine. “Considering the Su-35’s poor tactical, Russia’s poor logistics and human resources (training of air- and ground crews) support to export customers makes this a questionable option. But the Su-35 is the best Russian option,” Gramaglia said.

Seyyid Çakır highlighted the challenge of purchasing a Russian plane, saying, “I don’t see Turkey purchasing Russian-made aircraft as very plausible. There are obvious technical difficulties, like integrating NATO munitions with Russian-produced aircraft. These could be overcome with domestically produced pods, which is highly technical.”

“Then there are the obvious political limitations on purchasing additional Russian equipment given CAATSA and NATO membership. It could be done but unlikely in my opinion,” he noted.

Gramaglia concluded by saying, “considering the US recently approved the sale of an F-16 sustainment package for Pakistan – with all of its myriad strategic challenges, including a nuclear arsenal – I expect the US will ultimately approve the sale of new F-16 aircraft to Turkey.”