- In July 2019, the United States removed Türkiye from the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II program after its acquiring of the Russian-made S-400 air defense systems. Türkiye's S-400 acquisition had many negative political, military, economic, and technical implications spanning over Türkiye's long-term air defense force planning and its relations with the West, mainly United States.
- Türkiye’s inability to procure the F-35 fighter jets on time has led the Turkish Air Force (TAF) through Türkiye's Ministry of National Defense (MSB) to seek alternatives to fill the gap in its air defense capabilities, particularly in the combat aircraft segment, which is traditionally used by its combat aircraft squadron, not only defensively but also offensively.
- Relevant US Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) that applied to Türkiye's Defense Industry Agency renders MSB as the key institution for the possible contract negotiations with its counterparts on the US side for the F-16 deal.
- Therewithal, majority of strategic cooperations ranging from international organizations to bilateral economic ties between Türkiye and Transatlantic Allies are on track in a wide range of sectors.
- Even though geopolitically-driven policy divergences between the parties could create periodic tensions between both sides, Türkiye and the United States will continue to cooperate and serve as challenging allies to each other.
Why the F-16V Block 70 fighter jets are an urgent need for TAF?
The United States excluded Türkiye from the F-35 program after its purchasing of Russian-made long-range S-400 air defense system through Türkiye’s Defense Industry Agency, citing a technical confidentiality clause in line with the necessities of the F-35 contract. Before its removal, Turkey had planned to purchase 100 5.0 Generation F-35 fighter jets to replace its F-16 fighter jets to be retired.
Following Türkiye's inability to procure F-35 fighter jets in this vein, the Turkish military and defense bureaucracy has developed two primary long-term and short/mid-term alternatives as an interim solution to fill the gap in its air forces. As a long-term solution, Türkiye decided to produce its own national fighter under the TF-X fifth-generation fighter program by the Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI). On March 18, 2023, the TF-X fifth-generation fighter jet prototype's taxi tests were presented to the media. At this point, independently from the technical capability debates of TF-X, sources argue that this Turkish air plane project is expected to enter the TAF’s inventory in 2035 in an optimistic and in 2040 in a pessimistic view. In the 2050s, the TF-X is anticipated to enter mass production and be in long-term use in the TAF. The main producer company TAI announced that the first TF-X will be delivered to the TAF in 2028.
In contrast to official estimations for delivering TF-X, some experts underline that the TF-X could be delivered into the fighter fleets as early as 2050, requiring additional fighter jets in the short and medium term. This situation compels the MSB to procure F-16 Block 70s in the short and medium term to maintain its deterrence capacity in the combat aircraft segment.
How did the Defence Industry Agency’s purchase of S-400 air defense system affect the bureaucratic process of Türkiye’s F-16 negotiations?
The assessment of Türkiye's F-16 deal by both Türkiye and the U.S. is essential for deciphering and understanding the dynamics of the possible sale. In this context, this policy paper examines two institutions from Türkiye and four from the USA.
As in the U.S., institutions in Türkiye have different policy agendas in light of their policy goals. Open source assessments for Türkiye's F-16 deal show that the Turkish defense industry community has various views on Türkiye's F-16 need. Turkish public opinion has less knowledge about the technical aspects of F-16s, and some comments in the Turkish defense industry caused mixed societal reactions as a reflection of disinformation campaigns against the deal. Even though there is a confusion at the societal level towards the deal; statements made through state channels indicate that Türkiye has a strong aspiration for its F-16 demand.
Defence Industry Agency (SSB):
On the one hand, the Defence Industry Agency (SSB) is a civil institution established by the government to govern and deal with the supply of military technology. On the other one hand, the U.S. Department of State (DoS) in coordination with the Treasury Department has sanctioned the SSB through implementing CAATSA dated December 14, 2020, due to its purchase of the Russian-made S-400 long-range missile system. With this sanction, the U.S. took a restrictive approach towards the SSB, relevant to military and civilian export products and services that are subject to control under International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) and The Export Administration Regulations (EAR). At the same time, the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) added SSB and certain executives to its Non-SDN Menu-Based Sanction list. Non-SDN Menu-Based Sanctions List is a new design of sanction implemented by OFAC that serves as a reference tool to identify persons subject to certain non-blocking menu-based sanctions, including certain sanctions, dated December 14, 2020. As a result, currently the SSB is prohibited from negotiating the supply of military technology with the U.S. authorities, as it is a Non-SDN listed institution.
Ministry of National Defense (MSB):
The MSB is responsible for coordinating and supervising all agencies and functions of the government, concerned with national security including the TAF. Traditionally, US sanctioned SSB is the authorized institution that governs and deals with the supply of selected military technology. Under this restrictive policy environment, in October 2021, Türkiye requested 40 new 4.5-generation F-16s from the United States and an order for 80 kits to modernize the 4.0-generation F-16s in its inventory. Due to the CAATSA sanction restricting SSB's procurement abilities from United States persons and authorities, Türkiye sent the relevant request for F-16 fighter jets and kits to the Pentagon through the MSB instead of the SSB. In the current conjuncture of the F-16 negotiations, MSB, which is not on the U.S. sanctions list, has become a key institution bureaucratically in the negotiations. Although the SSB is on the sanctions list, a positive dialogue exists between the MSB and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). Various collaborations and cooperation exist between the parties in the F-16 negotiations as well as NATO. Besides, open sources cited that constructive initiatives between the parties continue through bureaucratic, civilian and diplomatic channels to bind the F-16 deal.
United States's Side:
In analyzing the current negotiation process, it is crucial to define the positions of the decision-making circles in the U.S., which are influential in selling F-16 fighter jets. According to the U.S. institutions' short, medium, and long-term policy agendas, their positions on the F-16 negotiations also differ. It is believed that the institutions having the primary bureaucratic discretion and influence on F-16 sales in the U.S. are the White House, the U.S. DoD, the U.S. DoS, and Congress in light of the current political environment and in bilateral ties.
The White House does not have direct bureaucratic authority on foreign military sales in the United States, where the authorized institution is determined as the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA). DSCA administers the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program for the DoD, where the FMS program is a security assistance program authorized by the Arms Export Control Act law (AECA). The AECA limits the executive authority (currently Biden Administration) to decide on government-to-government foreign military deals with a value up to $14 million for defense articles or services and $200 million for design and construction services. According to the media outlets, it is stated that the requested contract value for the F-16V Block 70 model and its kits will be around 20 billion dollars. Therefore, the U.S. President cannot decide individually on Türkiye's F-16s deal due to the legal requirements of the FMS program and the political dynamics of the Congress.
Nevertheless, Section 3 of the AECA provides a discursive space for the U.S. President to sell defense products and services to foreign countries and international organizations on issues that the U.S. President considers will strengthen the national security of the U.S. The President of the United States also strongly influences international affairs and lobbying groups as the highest elected political power. Therefore, in line with the Presidential and individual influence of Joseph Biden on foreign and political affairs, the Biden administration informed Congress informally of its intention to proceed with the sale of F-16s and their kits to Türkiye’s MSB by using this relevant discursive space in AECA Section 3.
Besides, Biden administration officials proposed that selling F-16s to Türkiye could strengthen ties with the Turkish Armed Forces as it remains the second-largest Army in NATO. Many experts also remind us that Congress has never successfully blocked a foreign arms sale requested by the White House.
U.S. Department of Defense (DoD):
DSCA is one of the key departments for the F-16 deal process between sides that the DoD rules. The DSCA is designated as the responsible body within the FMS program for dealing defense contracts with the recipient country. In this vein, DSCA serves as a technical mediator between the private supplier company and the recipient country, ranging from handling procurement, logistics, and delivery topics. In addition to the technical and dealer role of DSCA, it is pointed out that the FMS program serves as a fundamental tool of U.S. foreign policy. Accordingly, DoD’s foreign policy approach is critically important in Türkiye's F-16 deal based on the DSCA's dealer position at the table.
One of the leading foreign policy objectives of the DoD is to maintain the deterrence of the Transatlantic Alliance by sustaining the interoperability of NATO. In this context, technical processes and geopolitical factors are at the forefront of the Pentagon's military equipment and procurement decision-making processes. At this point, NATO's ability to maintain interoperability is directly related to the TAF's possession of F-16s due to NATO’s air defense planning. In line with this, TAF actively joins and contributes to NATO air defense duties in the Baltic, Poland, and the southern flank.
In light of the bureaucratic and policy agenda of the DoD, it is assessed that the Pentagon is in favour of Türkiye’s F-16 deal process where Pentagon’s press statements regarding the F-16 sales process indicate this support.
U.S. Department of State (DoS):
DoD executes the FMS program that is ruled by DSCA, and the DoS determines which countries will have the programs within foreign military sales. Previously, DoS promulgated four programs for the deliveries of different F-16 blocks under the names of Peace Onyx I (1987–1995), Peace Onyx II (1996–1997), Peace Onyx III (1998–1999), Peace Onyx IV (2010–2011) in different time scales. The U.S. DoS's Bureau of Political-Military Affairs is one of the key departments for the F-16 deal process between sides that oversees government-to-government arms transfers and commercial export licensing of U.S.-origin defense equipment and technologies, consistent with the AECA and ITAR.
The Office of Regional Security and Arms Transfers in the DoS's Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (PM/RSAT) manages the FMS approval process in close partnership with the DSCA. At this point, it is essential to underline that DoS has a different approach to its decision-making process than the DoD. While DoD focuses on the military and technical implications of military sales, DoS also considers political and human rights conditions in determining the provision of military equipment. In this context, it is reported that DoS has a more negative approach than DoD towards the F-16 deal due to its policy priority differences. Nevertheless, sources state that a positive attitude prevails at the upper levels of DoS, stemming from the political and bureaucratic influence of the White House and the Pentagon. If DoS and DoD both respond positively to Türkiye's F-16 request, a new program is expected to be launched.
Under the FMS program, Congress can block foreign military sales, and the possible blocker role of Congress renders it one of the crucial decision makers in the F-16 deal. For Congress to block Turkey's F-16 request, a 2/3 majority vote in Congress is required. Currently, no legally binding bill has been made by Congress persons for blocking the sales of F-16s to Türkiye. In consultation with the DoD, the DoS decided to submit the informal notice of the sale of F-16s to Türkiye, to the chairperson and ranking members of the relevant House of Representatives and Senate committees for preliminary review. At this stage, the relevant authorities of Congress are expected to review the informal notification and announce a positive or negative intention to start official negotiations in line with the FMS's directory.
Besides, on February 2, 2023, 29 senators in Congress sent a letter to U.S. President Joe Biden demanding that the sale of F-16s to Türkiye be blocked until Sweden and Finland's NATO memberships are approved by the Grand National Assembly of Türkiye. Notably, the letter was not signed by Robert Menendez, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who has the authority to block the sale. Although this document prepared by 29 members of Congress has received a lot of media coverage, the text has no binding rule on the surface of the legal level. The letter's aim is a lobbying activity rather than a formal process that could impact the negotiations bureaucratically. Additionally, Türkiye approved Finland’s NATO membership over the unanimous voting in the Turkish Parliament on March 2023. The approval of Finland by Türkiye could ease the tension within the US Congress regarding the F-16 deal at some level, but Sweden’s membership application process for NATO remains highly vague. Nonetheless, it is expected that Turkiye might lift its veto on Sweden through the ad-hoc meetings between the head of state during the NATO Summit in Vilnius this July. It can be argued that Türkiye’s lifting its veto against Sweden may change the stance of Congresspersons who opposse F-16 sales to TAF.
In light of current developments, all bureaucratic steps and political dynamics show that the summer of 2023 will be a critical period in Türkiye’s F-16 deal.
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