In addition to having the second-largest army in NATO, Turkey boasts the world’s third-largest fleet of US-made F-16 fighters. However, unlike many US allies in the region, it has no French or British aircraft, making it highly dependent on the US, a situation some Turks have begun to question and scrutinize.
Cagri Erhan, foreign policy and security adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, mentioned the iconic jets several times in January.
For example, on January 20, he tweeted that Turkey didn’t need any more F-16s and went as far as dubiously claiming that the plane isn’t even in the world’s top 10 fighters.
Erhan later expressed similar sentiments in a TV interview on January 28. He questioned why Turkey does not operate non-US fighter jets. He claimed that Ankara had not turned to other NATO countries for other types of fighters over the decades, as its pilots had received specific training for the F-16.
Turkey has received 270 F-16 Block 30/40/50 models since it first acquired the aircraft in 1987. This huge fleet forms the backbone of its air force.
Turkey currently wants to obtain 40 advanced Block 70 F-16s and 79 retrofit kits from the United States as part of a proposed $20 billion deal to keep this fleet up to date until it can acquire or develop the fifth generation.
Erhan’s comments coincide with recent negotiations between Turkey and the UK over a possible Turkish acquisition of 24-48 Eurofighter Typhoons, among other things. The acquisition of Eurofighters would signify that Turkey intends to reduce its dependence on the United States for fighters while expanding its burgeoning domestic arms industry exponentially.
Ankara expects the fifth-generation stealth fighter it is developing, the TAI TF-X, to enter service in the 2030s. Development of the TF-X has become increasingly essential since Turkey was banned from buying any fighter. Stealthy fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II in 2019 after it acquired Russia’s advanced S-400 air defense missile systems.
A glance at the air forces of other US allies in the Middle East and neighboring Greece shows that Erhan’s remarks are not entirely unfounded.
Greece has a sizeable fleet of F-16s, most of which are being modernized with the advanced Block 72. Athens also bought a sizeable number of French fighter jets, first acquiring the Dassault Mirage 2000 in the late 1980s. It has recently ordered 24 Dassault Rafale F3R fighter jets from Paris and has plans to buy more US fighters, with a possible F-35 acquisition under discussion.
Israel has the second largest F-16 fleet in the world, second only to the United States. Unlike Turkey, Israel has not always had an air force made up primarily of US aircraft.
France was Israel’s main arms supplier prior to 1967, and the Israeli Air Force operated several Dassault fighters, going so far as to build their version of the French Mirage 5, the Kfir.
Subsequent plans to build a fourth-generation F-16-like aircraft, the Lavi, in the 1980s fell through, and the backbone of the Israeli fighter fleet consisted of F-15s, F-16s, and now F-16s. 35 supplied by the United States.
The Israeli arms industry has introduced substantial modifications and improvements to these aircraft, including the F-35, creating distinctive Israeli variants.
In January, Israel officially requested the purchase of 25 of the new F-15EX fighters, underlining once again that it remains one of the leading operators of advanced US jets.
Forty-three F-16A and F-16B Fighting Falcons form the backbone of the Royal Jordanian Air Force.
The kingdom recently ordered eight modern F-16 Block 70s to modernize this fleet. Although Jordan, like Israel, has an all-American fighter fleet, it also previously owned French planes. Specifically the Dassault Mirage F1s it bought in the 1980s. Those fighters are now retired. Jordan currently only operates F-16s and will most likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
The island kingdom of Bahrain also relies heavily on F-16s for its modest air force, with 17 F-16Cs currently in service and 16 new Block 70s on the way. On the other hand, Manama (Bahrain) also has a small fleet of six British BAE Hawk trainer aircraft.
Iraq purchased 36 F-16 Block 60 jets from the US in the 2010s, supplemented by 24 South Korean-made T-50 trainer jets. Now, Baghdad is heading to France to acquire 14 Rafale, indicating that it is looking for a mixed fleet. Iraq has historically pivoted between east and west for its warplanes.
The backbone of the Saudi Arabian fighter fleet is made up of 84 advanced F-15SAs (Saudi Advanced) purchased under a historic $60 billion arms deal signed in 2010. However, despite having purchased a With its enormous number of advanced US fighter aircraft, Riyadh also boasts a sizable fleet of British-built Eurofighter Typhoons, ensuring that it is not solely dependent on the US for advanced fighters.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) also boasts a diverse fleet of American and French fighter jets, and it’s clear they want to stay that way. He bought 30 advanced French Mirage 2000-9s in the late 1990s, shortly before his historic acquisition of 80 F-16E/F Block 60s, a custom-built variant exclusively for his air force that was even more advanced than the F-16 piloted by the US Air Force at the time.
In January 2021, Abu Dhabi reached another landmark deal with the United States for 50 F-35s and 18 MQ-9 Reaper drones for $23 billion. However, the UAE suspended the agreement the following December, citing “onerous” US preconditions. That same month he signed another record $19 billion deal with France for 80 advanced Rafale F4s. In doing so, Abu Dhabi once again demonstrated its diligence in avoiding total reliance on any one country for fighter procurement.
Kuwait operates F/A-18 Hornets and Eurofighters. It has ordered 28 advanced Eurofighter Tranche 3s from Italy and 28 F/A-18E/F Super Hornet Block 3s from the United States, clearly indicating that it wants to continue flying the same number of both types.
Oman flies the Eurofighter and the British BAE Hawk 200 along with their F-16s.
When pre-revolutionary Iran was an ally of the United States under the late Shah, it only bought American plans, making it the only country to operate the iconic F-14 Tomcat.
At one point, however, the shah warned that he would turn to Britain for the Nimrod plane when Washington was reluctant to sell Iran E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) plans.
After 1979, Iran has turned mainly to Russia. In 1990, it bought a modest fleet of MiG-29A Fulcrums from Moscow as part of Tehran’s largest arms deal since 1979. Iran is currently acquiring 24 Russian Su-35 Flanker-E fighters, probably as a form of payment. for the hundreds of drones it has been supplying to Russia for use in the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Analysts had previously suggested that Tehran would do well to buy a mix of Russian Sukhois and Chinese 4.5-generation Chengdu J-10Cs. The Chinese J-10C is more competitively priced and has more advanced radar than the Su-35. However, China has been reluctant to accept oil as payment for its plans.
With the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, Egypt turned from the Soviet Union to the United States to purchase most of its military hardware. Cairo gradually built the fourth largest fleet of F-16s in the world. However, he resented the US refusal to supply him with AIM-120 AMRAAM long-range air-to-air missiles or sell him F-15s.
Egypt has periodically tried to reduce its heavy reliance on the United States for aircraft. In 1981, it became the first foreign country to buy the Mirage 2000, but only purchased 20.
In 2015, it also became the first foreign buyer of the Rafale F3R when it ordered 24 units. In 2021, he ordered another 30. Egypt’s current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, also turned to Russia in the 2010s to further diversify his army. He bought, among other things, a fleet of 48 MiG-29M/M2s.
When Egypt sought Su-35s in 2018, Washington warned that it could run afoul of its Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) introduced the previous year.
CAATSA, as the name suggests, imposes sanctions on buyers of Russian military hardware. Egypt has reportedly quietly backed out of that deal and the Su-35s Moscow built for it have been diverted to Iran.
In addition, the United States has suggested that it may soon drop its decades-old ban on selling F-15 jets to Egypt, which could further incentivize Cairo to reduce its defense ties with Moscow.
Turkey wishes it had taken similar steps to at least partially diversify its fighter fleet in recent decades. If he goes ahead with the proposed Eurofighter deal, it will be a sign that he is finally starting to take steps in that direction.
And if the $20 billion F-16 deal is blocked, which is a real possibility given staunch opposition from Congress, hopefully more Turks will follow Erhan and question the wisdom of relying so heavily on the United States. United to obtain fighter jets when so many neighboring countries and in the region have successfully avoided doing so.