A push is underway in Washington to revive a long-stalled deal to provide the Turkish air force with additional Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters.

US President Joe Biden has called on elected lawmakers in Congress to approve a request by Turkey to purchase 40 of the latest F-16V fighters – the sale of which has been stymied for years by geopolitical disagreements between the two NATO countries.

The recent policy reversal follows the Turkish parliament’s approval of NATO membership for Sweden on 24 January. Biden had previously supported the F-16 deal, but subsequently tied approval to Ankara approving Sweden’s NATO bid.

While the sale will still require congressional sign-off, Biden’s support is the first positive sign for the deal’s prospects in months, if not years.

Ankara in 2021 requested approval to purchase 40 new F-16s, along with 79 modernisation kits for its existing F-16Cs. The entire package was previously valued at $20 billion. The USA in April 2023 approved some limited avionics upgrades for Turkey’s existing fleet.

Turkey operates a fleet of 243 F-16Cs, according to Cirium data, 157 of which are assigned to front-line service.

f-16 greenville factory

Source: Lockheed Martin

Lockheed assembles F-16s in Greenville, South Carolina, with a current backlog of 135 aircraft

However, members of Congress have long withheld their support for the fighter sale – which is required under the US law governing foreign military sales.

Initially, lawmakers’ reasons for opposing the deal included the domestic policy record of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and bombastic rhetoric in Ankara directed at neighbouring Greece – Turkey’s one-time belligerent and current NATO member ally.

But since Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Washington has found a new reason to block Ankara’s request.

The Russian aggression drove Nordic countries Finland and Sweden to seek the protection of NATO membership – ending their decades-long stance of official neutrality.

Turkey, and Erdogan in particular, opposed Sweden joining the mutual defence bloc that has underpinned Euro-Atlantic security in the post war era.

Ankara opposed Sweden joining NATO on the grounds that Stockholm supported activists and members of the Kurdistan Workers Party – a Turkey-based militant group designated as a terrorist organisation by the USA and EU.

But Turkey also needs the new F-16Vs to modernise its air force, while the country’s domestic aerospace industry develops a fifth-generation-style fighter known as Turkish Aerospace Kaan or TF-X.

F-16 Turkey

Source: Turkish air force

Turkey operates a fleet of 243 ageing F-16Cs, according to Cirium data, 157 of which are assigned to frontline service.

The USA applied diplomatic pressure, particularly at the 2023 NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, and the months of effort appear to have paid off.

Both Erdogan and Turkish lawmakers ratified Sweden’s accession to NATO – leaving Hungary as the lone holdout.

Following that approval, Biden sent a letter to key members of Congress requesting their support for the F-16 sale, according to unconfirmed reporting by Reuters.

The Biden Administration is expected to formally submit the approval request to Congress once Sweden’s NATO membership has been administratively completed – including documentation sent to the official NATO registry in Washington.

If approved, the deal will be a substantial win for Lockheed, which has been pursuing overseas customers for the F-16, as the USA and major allies in Europe and Asia transition to the fifth-generation F-35 stealth fighter – also made by Lockheed.

The military airframer recently delivered the first F-16Vs to Slovakia and is nearing completion of the first jets bound for Bulgaria.

Even if the Turkish sale is approved quickly, it will still be some time before Ankara receives its new fighters.

As of January, Lockheed has an F-16 backlog of 135 aircraft in the latest Block 70/72 configuration, bound for six different countries.