WASHINGTON — Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visited the White House and Congress this week to make his country’s case for acquiring the F-35 stealth fighter jet while lobbying against Turkey’s attempts to upgrade its aging fleet of F-16s and acquire additional aircraft.
Not to be outdone, Turkish officials will visit Washington later this week to make their case for Congress to consent to an approximately $400 million deal to upgrade their F-16 jets with new missiles, radar and electronics — a prospect made more complicated by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent vows to block Sweden and Finland from joining NATO.
On Monday, Mitsotakis announced after a meeting with President Joe Biden that Greece will move forward with its bid to acquire the F-35 after 2028.
“We will launch the process for the acquisition of a squadron of F-35 aircraft, and we do hope to be able to add this fantastic plane to the Greek Air Force before the end of this decade,” Mitsotakis said at the White House.
He also noted Lockheed Martin — which produces F-35s and F-16s — “officially expressed its interest in investing in Hellenic aerospace” last week, right before his visit to Washington.
Media outlets in Greece cited Greek government officials as noting Lockheed Martin has invited Athens to join the F-35 co-production program.
“Building on our partnership of more than 75 years, we are honored the Greek government is interested in the F-35, and we will provide any support the U.S. government requires in discussions about an acquisition,” Lockheed Martin told Defense News in a statement.
Turkey has some explaining to do
The United States kicked Turkey out of the F-35 program in 2019 over Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system amid fears its advanced radar system could allow Moscow to spy on the F-35 stealth fighter jets.
In addition to the F-16 upgrades that the Biden administration notified Congress of last week, Erdogan has also sought to buy 40 Block 70 F-16 fighter jets. He has framed the roughly $6 billion purchase as compensation for Turkey’s financial losses in the F-35 program.
But Mitsotakis used an address to a joint meeting of Congress on Tuesday to issue a thinly veiled warning to lawmakers against allowing the F-16 sale to Turkey to proceed.
“We will not accept open acts of aggression that violate our sovereignty and our territorial rights,” he said in reference to recent Turkish incursions of Greek airspace. “These include overflights over Greek islands, which must stop immediately.”
“The last thing that NATO needs at a time when our focus is helping defeat Russian aggression is another source of instability on NATO’s southeastern flank,” Mitsotakis added to applause from lawmakers. “I ask you to take this into account when you make defense procurement decisions concerning the eastern Mediterranean.”
Mitsotakis pressed his case in separate meetings with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as well as the bipartisan, bicameral leaders of the foreign affairs committees, who can unilaterally block arms sales. Those meetings included coffee with Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., one of Turkey’s staunchest opponents on Capitol Hill.
Still, Menendez’s less hardline counterparts recently signaled a cautious openness to greenlighting the F-16 sale for Turkey given its support for Ukraine. But Ankara’s recent threats to tank Sweden and Finland’s bids for NATO membership have created uncertainty over whether those same lawmakers will allow the F-16 sale to proceed.
“Turkey has some explaining to do,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., told Defense News. “They’ve been doing the right thing — I think — to a large degree. That’s important to me, but there’s other things that I still have problems with that we need to have a dialogue and conversation.”
Meeks said that dialogue would include Turkish opposition to Swedish and Finnish NATO membership. Erdogan has accused both countries of supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey designates a terrorist group.
Erdogan has demanded Sweden and Finland rescind an arms embargo on Ankara instated after Turkey’s 2019 offensive against the northeast Syrian Kurdish-dominated administration with close ties to the PKK. Every country in NATO must consent to adding a new member to the alliance, allowing Turkey to unilaterally tank the bid.
Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, warned Erdogan’s blockade of the two potential new NATO allies could sink the F-16 sale.
“Greece has been a very good ally with Ukraine, but then again so has Turkey,” McCaul told Defense News. “The big hiccup with Turkey is when Erdogan came out indicating that he may not support Finland [and] Sweden being in NATO. That would be problematic for Turkey.”
McCaul suggested Turkey could ship its S-400 system to Ukraine, which has desperately sought advanced air defense systems against Russian aerial power. In return, he said the U.S. could send Turkey a Patriot missile system — an arrangement similar to the one Washington struck with Slovakia after it dispatched its S-300 system to Ukraine.
He could have an opportunity to raise that prospect when Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusgolu visits Washington on Wednesday.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.