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The 2022 NATO Madrid Summit ended on Thursday, June 30. Remarks made by U.S. President Joe Biden and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on the final day of that meeting could provide some early insight into what Greek and Turkish air forces could look like at the end of this decade.
President Biden told a press conference that the United States supports the sale of modernized F-16 fighter jets to Turkey.
On Tuesday, Turkey tentatively agreed to lift its prior objections to Finland and Sweden joining the alliance. Biden denied his stated support for the F-16 sale was in return for Turkey’s crucial approval of the two Nordic countries’ admission, pointing out that he had previously expressed his approval before this issue even arose.
“I said back in December, as you’ll recall, we should sell them the F-16 jets and modernize those jets as well,” he said. “It’s not in our interest not to do that.”
“And there was no quid pro quo with that,” he added. “It was just that we should sell, but I need congressional approval to be able to do that. And I think we can do that.”
Biden was referring to a Turkish request last October to buy 40 new Block 70/72 F-16s and 80 modernization kits for its existing fleet in a deal valued at $6 billion. Turkey needs these new fighter-bombers and modernization kits to keep its air force up-to-date, especially since it was banned from buying fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II jets after its fateful purchase of Russian S-400 air defense missile systems.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis also told the Madrid summit that his country has sent a letter of request to buy a squadron of F-35s, 20 aircraft according to Greek officials, with a possible option for a second one, or up to 40 F-35s altogether.
Mitsotakis acknowledged that it would be a lengthy process from making the order to receiving the aircraft, estimating that Athens would not take delivery of the stealth jets until at least 2027-28.
“Part of this procedure is the sending of the Letter of Request, which has occurred in recent days,” he said.
If both these deals are approved, the Hellenic Air Force (HAF) will still have a technological edge over Turkey’s larger air force.
As previously outlined here, if the United States doesn’t allow Turkey to buy these new F-16s and modernization kits, the HAF would likely end up fielding a more technologically-advanced fighter fleet by the late 2020s.
On the other hand, if Athens gets its squadron of F-35s and Ankara its new F-16s and modernization kits, the former would still have a clear technological advantage. And not just because it would be the only one with fifth-generation jets.
Greece has already secured a contract to upgrade 84 HAF F-16s to Block 72 configuration. Lockheed Martin will complete that contract in mid-2027. So, even if the Biden administration can win the approval of Congress for the Turkish F-16 deal soon, which is far from guaranteed, Greece will still field 84 modernized F-16s before Turkey does.
Furthermore, Greece would also begin taking delivery of F-35s around the same time Lockheed Martin finishes upgrading those HAF F-16s, presuming it can secure a deal for at least one squadron, which is not unlikely. Athens previously reportedly expressed its willingness to buy second-hand F-35s, which could mean it might acquire the aircraft a little earlier.
And that’s not mentioning the 24 4.5-generation Dassault Rafale F3R jets Greece has already begun taking delivery of from France, which are more advanced than any aircraft in the Turkish arsenal.
Ahead of Thursday’s summit, the Turkish government reportedly considered buying Eurofighter Typhoons from the United Kingdom if it made no progress on the F-16 deal. London lifted all arms exports restrictions it had imposed on Ankara over its October 2019 cross-border military offensive into Syria in May, making the sale possible. The U.K. has also been reportedly pushing for a Eurofighter sale to Turkey.
Buying Eurofighters would make a lot of sense for Turkey. They could serve as a 4.5-generation stopgap solution for the Turkish Air Force until it can finally either procure or build a fifth-generation aircraft and a counterbalance to Greek Rafales.
However, if Ankara gets approval to buy Block 70/72 F-16s, it may decide such a purchase would be unnecessary since that Viper variant has many fifth-generation features.
Either way, Turkey will still have difficulty overcoming the substantial technological edge the HAF will likely attain by 2030.
Even if Turkey fields 120 Block 70/72 F-16s (40 brand new and 80 upgraded), they will be up against 84 HAF Block 72 Vipers (all in service no later than the second half of 2027), 20-40 F-35s, and, at the very least, 24 Rafales. In other words, no fewer than 128 HAF fighters with equal or superior capabilities to Turkey’s very best jets.
And even if Turkey buys a squadron or two of advanced Eurofighters in addition to its modernized F-16s, the HAF will most likely retain this technological edge.