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US removes obstacle to Turkey F-16 sales

Lawmakers cut a provision in the annual defence spending bill conditioning arms sales to Turkey on illegal overflights of Greek territory
Turkey made a request in October 2021 to buy 40 Lockheed Martin-made F-16 fighters and nearly 80 modernisation kits from the US (AFP)

US lawmakers have removed a provision in an annual defence spending bill that would have imposed limits on the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, in a potential boost for Ankara’s efforts to upgrade its air force.

The final text of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), finalised Tuesday night, does not include a provision added in July conditioning the sale of F-16 fighter jets and upgrade kits to Turkey on the US verifying they will not be used for illegal territorial overflights of neighbouring Greece.

Turkey made a request in October 2021 to buy 40 Lockheed Martin-made F-16 fighters and nearly 80 modernisation kits from the US for its existing warplanes.

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Turkey has, however, faced resistance to the purchase, with many US lawmakers citing Turkey's position vis-a-vis Greece in a series of maritime and territorial disputes as an area of concern.

In September, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a veiled threat against his neighbour, prompting Athens to warn that the region could erupt into a Ukraine-style war.

The rhetoric resurfaced on Tuesday after Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that Turkey “will do what is necessary” if Athens refuses to demilitarise islands in the Aegean Sea, which Ankara says is in breach of international law.

Greece maintains that the military force on the islands is necessary to protect them from a possible attack from superior numbers of Turkish troops stationed on Turkey’s coast.

'Not a win for Turkey'

In a nod to some lawmakers' concerns, the compromise version of the NDAA included an explanatory note that said: “We believe that North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies should not conduct unauthorized territorial overflights of another NATO ally’s airspace.”

The NDAA doesn't guarantee Turkey will receive approval for the arms purchase, which would still need to move through the US Senate.

“Contrary to some claims, the NDAA is not a win for Turkey. This is just one of many tools we have at our disposal in the Senate to deal with arms sales,” Robert Menendez, Democratic senator and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said following the changes to the NDAA.

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Menendez, a noted critic of Ankara with oversight of US arms sales, said that he has not changed his opposition to the F-16 deal.

“I’ll say it again. As SFRC Chairman, I will NOT approve F-16s for Turkey until Erdogan halts his abuses across the region,” he stated.

Menendez’s position puts him at odds with the Biden administration, which has come out in support of new military sales to Turkey.

In a letter to Congress in June, the Department of Defence said that the US "fully supports" Turkey's efforts to modernise its air force, seeing the move as “a contribution to Nato security and therefore American security”.

Biden gave his clearest support to the sale at a Nato conference in Madrid in July, saying: “We (the US) should sell [Turkey] the F-16 jets and modernise those jets as well. It’s not in our interest not to do that.”

The US House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on the defence authorisation bill on Wednesday. It must then pass the Senate before being signed into law by President Biden.

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