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US Proceeds with F-16 Transfer to Turkey as Sweden Receives NATO Approval

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan confirmed on Tuesday that the United States will proceed with the transfer of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey in consultation with Congress.

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This announcement comes a day after Ankara gave the green light for Sweden to join NATO, a significant development in Sweden’s path towards alliance membership.

Turkey, which had previously posed a major obstacle to Sweden’s NATO aspirations, had submitted a request in October 2021 to purchase $20 billion worth of Lockheed Martin Corp’s F-16 fighters. Additionally, they sought nearly 80 modernization kits for their existing warplanes. Ahead of the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, which commenced on Tuesday, Sullivan emphasized that U.S. President Joe Biden has expressed clear support for the transfer.

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“He has placed no caveats on this… He intends to move forward with that transfer,” Sullivan stated during a press briefing. However, he did not provide specific details regarding the timing of the transfer.

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On Monday, U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, a Democrat who had previously blocked the transfer, revealed that he is currently in discussions with the Biden administration regarding his hold on the issue. Menendez indicated that he could make a decision on the matter “in the next week,” suggesting that he may lift the hold.

Both Turkish officials and the Biden administration have dismissed any notion that Ankara’s approval of Sweden’s NATO membership was contingent upon the F-16 sale. Throughout the months of negotiations to address Turkish opposition, this linkage has been vehemently denied.

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010205-F-1631A-001 An U.S. F-16 flies towards Rimini, Italy to join with the Italian Air Force in a training mission. U.S. Air Forces from the 510th Fighter Squadron, Aviano Air Base, Italy and Italian Air Forces from the 83rd Combat Search and Rescue Squadron, Rimini, Italy, participated in a 4-day training mission from Feb. 5 to Feb. 8, 2001. The mission involved U.S. F-16 aircrews locating and authenticating survivors and coordinate pickup with Italian rescue crews. F-16’s were also tasked with escorting helicopters to protect them from air and ground threats. This is the first ever tasking of a full-time combat search and rescue mission for F-16’s from the 510th Fighter Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Dave Ahlschwede)

However, some diplomats and analysts believe that Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan may have utilized Sweden’s membership as leverage to press Washington on the issue of the warplanes, speculating that a deal was struck with Biden’s involvement. “There seems to have been a big push by the Biden administration to allow Turkey to modernize its air force and acquire new F-16s,” noted Camille Grand, a defense specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank. “This push together with the Swedish efforts on the PKK front might have played an important role in convincing Erdogan to move forward on Sweden.”

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Gerard Araud, a former French ambassador to Washington, took to Twitter in response to Sullivan’s announcement, suggesting that “‘The Swedish blackmail’ paid off.”

Ankara had previously justified its opposition to Sweden’s NATO accession by accusing Sweden of not doing enough against individuals Turkey views as terrorists, primarily members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is recognized as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU, and the United States.

In a joint statement issued on Monday, Turkey and Sweden reiterated that Sweden would not provide support to Kurdish groups and expressed active support for revitalizing Turkey’s EU accession process.

Russian officials expressed concern about the anticipated NATO membership of Sweden, stating that it would have “negative implications” for Russia’s security and necessitate a response from Moscow.

The precise timing of both the F-16 transfer and Sweden’s entry into NATO remains uncertain. Turkey’s parliament is not scheduled to convene until after the summer, and Hungary still needs to ratify the accession treaty. Nevertheless, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto stated on Tuesday that the ratification process was merely a technical issue.

All NATO member states must ratify the accession of a new member. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg confirmed that Erdogan has agreed to expedite the ratification process in the Turkish parliament “as soon as possible.” However, he was unable to provide a specific timeframe. It took two weeks for Turkey’s parliament to ratify Finland’s membership, which occurred after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 altered the security considerations of the two Nordic nations.