ATHENS – Greece is moving closer to American approval of buying F-35 fighter jets while Turkey’s hopes of acquiring more F-16s is facing a continued objection from Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez.
The New Jersey Democrat, aligned with Greek interests and staunch foe of newly-reelected President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said he will try to block the F-16s sale sought by President Joe Biden if Turkey renews aggression against Greece.
While there’s been a rapprochement between Turkey and Greece – which has a caretaker administration ahead of a June 25 elections second round – there’s concern that Erdogan, emboldened by his victory, could return to provoking Greece.
Then Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who won a first elections round easily and is favored in the second, had pushed for Greece to get F-35s that were denied Turkey after it acquired Russian S-400 missile defenses that undermine NATO and could be used against Greece in a conflict.
Now US Sen. Jim Risch, an Idaho Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, has given his approval to Greece getting the F-35s, said Hellas Journal, backing Menendez who also wants the deal to go through.
The Biden Administration, which is trying to please both Turkey and Greece, will have to send the F-35 proposal to Congress although Erdogan said he also hasn’t given up wanting to buy them as well.
Menendez indicated he’s not convinced the volatile Erdogan, who backed off tensions following an earthquake that saw Greece send aid and a train tragedy in Greece, won’t restart his previous bellicose talk.
“Now what’s important is how does Erdogan want to move into the future with Turkey. If he wants to change course from where he’s been, I look forward to seeing that,” he told reporters, said Reuters.
“If it’s the same, or more of the same, as what we’ve seen then I’ll still have the same positions as I’ve had before,” Menendez said, opposing Turkey getting more F-16s and upgrade for its Air Force.
Other Congressional critics said Erdogan could likely use the jets to reboot violations of Greek airspace and they want assurances they won’t, but Turkey has rejected any conditions being attached.
The US said Turkey getting the F-16s and upgrades isn’t linked to Erdogan withdrawing his veto of Sweden joining NATO, although Biden on the phone indicated it was a quid pro quo.
In October, 2021, Turkey said it wanted to buy $20 billion worth of Lockheed Martin Corp F-16 fighters and nearly 80 modernization kits for its existing warplanes which Biden has backed, to the chagrin of Greece.
Menendez and others in the Congress wary of the clever Turkish leader also object to his jailing journalists and human rights violations that the US and the European Union – which Turkey has been trying to join since 2005 – overlook.
“Sweden is only part of the equation. For some members, it may be the whole equation. It’s not for me,” Menendez said, who added he hasn’t spoken to Biden since the US President called Erdogan to congratulate him for winning an election after holding down opponents and controlling the media.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Turkey to immediately finalize Sweden’s accession to NATO and contradicted Biden, saying the sale of the jets wasn’t linked despite Biden as much as saying that it was.
During the informal review process for major weapons sales, the leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees can block deals, citing human rights concerns but Biden has power to authorize agreements if he deems it’s in the national interest.
But even if Greece is approved to buy the F-35s, they wouldn’t be delivered until likely 2028 through 2035, Kathimerini said earlier, the first installment costing 350 million euros ($376.79 million.)
Greece in June 2022 made a request to the US to buy 20 of the Lockheed Martin-made F-35 fighter jets, said Mitsotakis at the time, as he was building an arsenal and making alliances against Turkey’s provocations.
“Our intention is to acquire an F-35 squadron with a possible option for a second one. Sending a Letter of Request (LoR) which has happened in the past few days is part of this process,” Mitsotakis told reporters after a NATO meeting, said Reuters.
According to the state-run ERT TV at the time, the Defense Ministry also wanted to proceed with the upgrade of 38 F-16 fighter jets as tensions were still running high with Turkey.