Turkey inks $23B F-16 deal: US aims to strengthen ally’s fleet

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After years of striving to modernize its air force, Turkey officially signed a letter of offer and acceptance to purchase new F-16 fighters from the United States on June 13. This exciting development was confirmed by both Turkey’s defense ministry and the U.S. State Department. 

Photo credit: Lockheed Martin

Back in October 2021, Ankara submitted a request to acquire 40 F-16 Block 70/72 fighters. This move aimed to replace the aging fleet of F-4E Phantoms and included 79 modernization kits to upgrade older F-16s to a similar standard. 

Although there was initial opposition to the sale in Washington, recent diplomatic moves have changed the tide. Turkey’s support for Swedish NATO membership and its robust backing of Ukraine against Russia have softened previous resistance. U.S. Ambassador to Ankara Jeffrey Flake praised the deal, calling it “beneficial for U.S. national security, Turkish national security, and NATO interoperability.”

Photo credit: Lockheed Martin

The largest F-16 foreign operator

Reflecting this favorable sentiment, State Department Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel stated back in January that “President Biden and Secretary Blinken have consistently supported modernizing Turkey’s F-16 fleet, considering it a vital investment in NATO interoperability.”

Turkey, today, stands as the largest foreign operator of the F-16 fighter jet, a machine that took to the skies for the first time back in 1974. However, the variants in Turkey’s arsenal are far from cutting-edge. They still rely on mechanically scanned array radars, which offer limited electronic warfare countermeasures and situational awareness.

Photo: AeroTimeHub

As a result, NATO’s Turkish fleet is significantly outclassed by the air forces of many key players in the region. For instance, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are equipped with more advanced F-16 variants. Egypt and Syria operate enhanced MiG-29s outfitted with phased array radars, and Iran is poised to deploy Su-35s—a high-tech fighter also utilized by Russian forces stationed in Syria.

NATO interests

Bolstering Turkey’s aerial warfare capabilities has become crucial to broader NATO interests, especially as challenges to the U.S.-led bloc’s influence in the Middle East intensify. Since the spike in hostilities between Israeli and Palestinian forces on October 7, Turkey’s ongoing actions against Syria’s security and other Iranian-aligned entities, including direct attacks and support for jihadist affiliates, have significantly complicated the military landscape. This focus on regional adversaries has prevented Damascus, Hezbollah, and other factions from directing their military efforts toward Israel and the United States. 

Photo credit: Flicr

F-16 Block 70/72

The F-16 Block 70/72 stands out as a ‘4+ generation’ fighter, boasting avionics as sophisticated as those found in the latest F-35 stealth fighters. It’s the most advanced F-16 variant ever produced. 

One of its major advantages is the integration of the APG-83 active electronically scanned array radar. This not only makes it a formidable electronic warfare platform but also provides exceptional situational awareness for a fighter of its size. The radar’s cutting-edge technology helps counterbalance the size limitations of the sensors that the F-16, as a light fighter aircraft, traditionally carried.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

This new variant’s sensors and weaponry elevate it far beyond its predecessors, which were produced during the Cold War and into the early 2000s. Those older models relied on mechanically scanned array radars and earlier generations of avionics and armaments. 

The F-16 was initially developed as a cost-effective, lightweight counterpart to America’s premier Cold War-era air superiority fighter, the F-15. Advanced variants of the F-15 are currently in operation with Turkey’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia, and are being considered for acquisition by Israel. Given the reduced international demand for the aging F-16, Turkey’s $23 billion order will provide a significant boost to the program.

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