In 2019, underestimating reaction from Turkey's NATO allies, Erdoğan decided to buy the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, the first such system purchased by a NATO member state. The cost to the Turkish taxpayer was a good $2.5 billion. The system remains "unpacked": Erdoğan fears further Western sanctions if he deploys the S-400s.
In return, the U.S. sanctioned Turkey under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Additionally, the U.S.-led multinational consortium that builds the new generation of F-35 fighter jets expelled Turkey from the partnership. The cost to the Turkish taxpayer was another $1.5 billion. Turkey's defense industry, suspended from the consortium, will have been deprived of $10 billion worth of contracts over the next decade.
One move, ordering the S-400s from Russia, cost Turkey a net loss of $14 billion. And his fans call Erdoğan a wizard gambler.
That was only the financial loss to a country, where the per capita Gross Domestic Product is still crawling at around $9,500 -- the second-lowest in Europe, after Albania. It appears that the S-400 decision will also cost Turkey geostrategically.
Turkey, with NATO's second-biggest military, has traditionally had a deterrent air force, during and after the Cold War. In 2022, the Turkish Air Force (TuAF) ranked 21 in the Global Air Powers Ranking. An attempted coup in July 2016 led to tens of thousands of people purged from both the civil service and the military. The number of generals in the TuAF dropped from 72 before the failed coup to 44 after. The force had lost half of its pilots – from 1,350 to 680. Resignations and retirement requests of TuAF pilots followed the purge, further weakening the air force's command and operational capabilities, and bringing the number of pilots to fewer than 400. The air force had to recruit Pakistani pilots for its F-16 missions.
Turkey's air force operates fighter jet squadrons of fourth-generation U.S.-built F-16s and older F-4s. Today, the Turkish military has a total of 270 F-16C/D aircraft in its inventory, all of them Block 30/40/50 models. Is that good enough? No. Most of those aircraft will have to be phased out within the next 10 to 12 years, depending on their upgrades. So, this means that Turkey's air force is flying into an abyss.
Meanwhile, on the opposite shores of the Aegean Sea, rival Greece has taken steps to change the air power balance in its favor. Greece in January showcased its newly acquired defense capabilities by flying six new Rafale fighter jets over the Acropolis hours after they arrived from France -- along with a bill for €11.5 billion.
Ironically, in June, Greece sent an official request to the U.S. for the purchase of 20 F-35 fighter jets -- which Turkey would have bought if Erdoğan had not insisted on buying the Russian S-400s that he never unpacked. "Our intention is to acquire an F-35 squadron with a possible option for a second one. Sending a Letter of Request (LoR) which has happened in the past few days is part of this process," Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told reporters after the NATO summit on June 30.
Erdoğan had also threatened his NATO allies that he would purchase Russian-made Su-35 or Su-57 aircraft if all other Western fighter jet options failed. Some Western governments were concerned about pushing Turkey further into Russia's orbit by denying Turkey fighter technology. After Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February, however, buying from Russia is no longer an option. Erdoğan, fearing further sanctions, cannot buy even an airplane wing from Russia, let alone an advanced fighter.
A Swedish solution (Saab's Gripen jets) is also no longer an option. China is not either: Beijing keeps harboring hard feelings over Ankara's decision to scrap a $3.4 billion contract initially awarded to a Chinese company in 2013 for the air defense program -- instead of which Ankara later chose the Russian-made S-400s. There is always the European Typhoon (Eurofighter). But Turkey and the Typhoon's European makers have not yet solved differences over intellectual property rights and other co-production details.
All this picture showed Ankara was that the only viable option is another U.S.-made fighter, although not the new generation: The F-16 Block 70. Thus, Turkey in October made a request to the U.S. to buy 40 F-16 fighter jets and nearly 80 modernization kits for its existing warplanes. This purchase would mean an estimated $6 billion+ business for F-16 maker Lockheed Martin.
President Joe Biden is "willing to cooperate with U.S. Congress on the renewal and modernization of Turkey's F-16 fighter jet fleet," according to a statement made by a State Department official on July 7. According to Doug Jones, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs:
"So the F-16 issue has been up there for a while. And I think the administration has stated Biden's position on this, which is that the administration supports Turkey's modernizing.... The president has also been clear that he needs to support Congress to do this as well. So the leaders have spoken about this, but the position of the administration remains what it was before, before the summit in support of this sale, and expressed the willingness to work with Congress."
Things, however, are not progressing as smoothly as Biden may have hoped. The U.S. House of Representatives on July 14 approved legislation that could create a new hurdle for Biden's plan to sell F-16 fighter jets to Turkey.
The House approved a measure that basically said the amendment would bar the U.S. from selling or transferring the jets to Turkey unless the administration certifies that doing so is essential to U.S. national security and includes a description of concrete steps taken to ensure Turkey does not use them for unauthorized overflights of Greece (which Turkey repeatedly conducts). The amendment, offered by Democratic Representatives Frank Pallone and Chris Pappas to the annual National Defense Authorization Act by a vote of 244 to 179, restricted the sale by making it conditional. It was the latest effort by members of Congress to exert control over the sale of F-16s to Turkey.
An ostensibly compelling argument in favor of the sale is this: the U.S. will not be selling the advanced F-16 to Erdoğan, but to a NATO ally, Turkey. So, why block the sale as, after a while, the Turkish Islamist strongman, like others, will have to disappear from the political scene.
The argument is that the 69-year-old Erdoğan will be ousted by popular vote either in 2023 or, that failing, in 2028 -- whereas the F-16s will be in use in the next couple of decades.
However, even then, post-Erdoğan politics in Turkey will most likely produce another Islamist/conservative/nationalist alliance of some flavor, probably led by another Erdoğan.
The U.S. Congress should take into account a political perspective in Aegean military balance -- in addition to the $6 billion or so business for the American industry -- if and when it decides on an F-16 sale to Turkey.
Turkey, theoretically, is a NATO ally, but in the last decade, Erdoğan's rigid anti-Western ideology has brought Turkey closer to like-minded states such as Russia and Iran. Erdoğan should not be allowed access to critical weapon systems with which he can further threaten Greece, a NATO and EU member. Further escalation in the Aegean Sea is not in anyone's interest in the West.
Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based political analyst and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.