WASHINGTON — Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu met with his U.S. counterpart Antony Blinken in Washington on Wednesday to secure a $20 billion arms sale that includes 40 Lockheed Martin Block 70 F-16 fighter jets as well as upgrades to Turkey’s current F-16 fleet.
But the U.S. State Department has yet to formally notify Congress of the potential deal, and a key senator has vowed to block it from proceeding.
If the sale clears Congress, Turkey may still have to wait a good deal of time before it receives the new jets amid an F-16 production backlog.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., has repeatedly said he will use his position as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee to block the sale, and he hasn’t shown signs of backing down.
“I strongly oppose the Biden administration’s proposed sale of new F-16 aircraft to Turkey,” Menendez said in a statement. “President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan continues to undermine international law, disregard human rights and democratic norms and engage in alarming and destabilizing behavior in Turkey and against neighboring NATO allies.
“Until Erdogan ceases his threats, improves his human rights record at home — including by releasing journalists and political opposition — and begins to act like a trusted ally should, I will not approve this sale.”
But it remains to be seen how quickly F-16 manufacturer Lockheed Martin might be able to build those jets for Turkey.
“We have a significant backlog for F-16s,” Erin Moseley, vice president of strategy and business development for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, said in a July 2022 interview with Defense News at the Farnborough Airshow in England. Moseley also said international customers were showing a “massive interest” in buying new F-16s.
Lockheed Chief Financial Officer Jay Malave also said in an earnings call last summer that the F-16 backlog was 128 fighters. For instance, Taiwan is also waiting on 66 F-16s, which is an approximately $8 billion portion of a broader backlog in overall U.S. arms sales to the Asian nation that now exceeds $14 billion.
Malave also said in the earnings call that Lockheed bolstered its F-16 production operations in Greenville, South Carolina, with nearly 50 employees, who moved from another section of the company. Lockheed has built F-16s for foreign customers in South Carolina since 2019, when it moved that production line from Fort Worth, Texas.
Lockheed Martin referred Defense News’ queries to the U.S. government.
F-35s for Greece?
Menendez did praise another major arms sale involving Lockheed Martin: a pending deal for Greece to purchase 20 F-35As. Greece and Turkey continue to lobby the U.S. against the other country receiving fighter jets amid ongoing tension between the two NATO members.
“This defense capability is not only critical for a trusted NATO ally and enduring partner’s efforts to advance security and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean, but also strengthens our two nations’ abilities to defend shared principles including our collective defense, democracy, human rights and the rule of law,” Menendez said of the potential F-35 sale to Greece.
Menendez’s home state of New Jersey boasts the sixth-largest Greek American population in the U.S. and the fourth-largest Armenian American population, making Turkey particularly unpopular among some of his constituents.
The U.S. State Department has yet to issue a formal notification to Congress for the sale to Greece, which also seeks to join the F-35 co-production program.
The U.S. kicked Turkey out of that program in 2019 over Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system. The U.S. government had cited concerns over the system’s advanced radar and the possibility its presence in Turkey could allow Russia to spy on F-35 stealth fighters.
Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., a member of the congressional Hellenic Caucus, also issued a statement Wednesday blasting the Biden administration’s proposed F-16 sale to Turkey. He vowed to work with Menendez to block the deal from proceeding.
More specifically, he singled out Erdoğan’s “vitriolic rhetoric advocating for the invasion of Greek and Cypriot sovereign territory and encouraged illegal overflights by Turkish jets.” He also accused the Turkish president of holding “hostage the Finnish and Swedish applications to join NATO until his absurd and unrelated demands are met.”
The State Department is in talks with Congress over the potential F-16 sale, but department spokesman Ned Price declined to disclose the Biden administration’s private conversations with lawmakers. However, Price pointed to the overwhelming support on Capitol Hill for Finland and Sweden joining NATO — an accession bid that Erdoğan has stalled as he seeks the extradition of political dissidents that Turkey labels as terrorists, including several Kurds.
“Our partners on the Hill, at least several of them, have made no secret about their opposition to this,” Price told Defense News at a State Department press conference Wednesday in response to a question on the F-16 sale. “We encourage Turkey, Finland [and] Sweden to find a way to achieve what we would all like to see, and that is the quick accession of Finland and Sweden as NATO’s newest allies. There is strong support within the alliance … there is strong support within the U.S. Congress for Finland and Sweden to become NATO’s newest members.”
Further complicating matters is the fact that the Turkish government has repeatedly threatened to launch another large-scale offensive against U.S.-backed forces in northeastern Syria ahead of the Turkish presidential elections in May.
The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Council lobbied the Biden administration and Congress last year against selling fighter jets to Turkey, pointing out that Ankara has used F-16s to target civilian infrastructure in northeast Syria.
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.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.