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WASHINGTON – Greek Defense Minister Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos is visiting the United States this week as Athens continues its bid to join Lockheed Martin’s F-35 co-production program and lobby against a potential F-16 sale to Turkey.
Panagiotopoulos said Tuesday that he discussed Greece’s potential entry into the F-35 program with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin as well as Sean Burke, the director of the Pentagon’s F-35 joint program office. He also noted that he would tour Lockheed’s F-35 production line Fort Worth, Texas on Wednesday alongside the company’s CEO, Jim Taiclet.
“We already have made our interest known,” he told Defense News. “We sent a letter of request, and we have to wait for a time – that’s the procedure – for the letter of acceptance. But everything that needs to be done on a procedural level for a swift entrance into this program is being done.”
Greece sent its official letter of request to buy 20 F-35As last month with an eye on delivery after 2028. Athens has also expressed interest in purchasing an additional batch of F-35s down the line. Joining Lockheed’s co-production program alongside the U.S. and eight other countries would also require Greece to stake its own equities in manufacturing the advanced fighter jets.
Panagiotopoulos said that joining the program reflects the commitment of Greece and the U.S. to intensify cooperation “in the domain of defense procurement.”
He made the remarks after a meeting with Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who exercises considerable leverage over arms sales to other nations as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Menendez’s home state of New Jersey boasts the sixth largest Greek American population in the U.S. and the fourth largest Armenian American population, making Greece’s adversarial NATO ally Turkey particularly unpopular among many of his constituents.
Greece, Turkey jockey for position in Washington
Menendez has threatened to use his leverage to block the $6 billion sale of 40 Lockheed Martin Block 70 F-16 fighter jets to Turkey. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis directly appealed to Congress to block the F-16 sale during an address before a joint meeting of Congress in May – immediately after he announced Greece’s intention to acquire the F-35 at the White House.
The U.S. kicked Turkey out of the F-35 co-production program in 2019 over Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense amid fears its advanced radar system could allow Moscow to spy on the stealth fighter jets.
The Greeks have found a critical ally in Menendez as they seek to block the F-16 sale to Turkey amid repeated Turkish violations of Greek airspace, the ongoing occupation of Northern Cyprus and maritime disputes over gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean.
This puts Athens at odds with President Joe Biden, who voiced support for the F-16 sale at the NATO summit in Madrid last month after Turkey dropped its opposition to Swedish and Finnish accession to the alliance. The Turks are also seeking a separate $400 million sale to upgrade their current F-16 jets with new missiles, radar and electronics.
“We should sell them the F-16 jets and modernize those jets as well,” Biden said in Madrid. “But I need congressional approval to be able to do that, and I think we can get that.”
It remains unclear how the White House plans to persuade Menendez, who remains committed to using his position to block the sale.
Menendez told Defense News on Monday that he remains a hard no on the F-16s but said he could consider the sale if Turkey addresses issues he has previously raised with Ankara. Those include its actions in the eastern Mediterranean, its continued possession of the S-400s, it human rights record and ongoing attacks against the US-backed fighters in northeast Syria.
‘The situation is fluid right now’
The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Council has also lobbied Congress and the Biden administration against the sale, noting that Turkey has used F-16s to target civilian infrastructure in areas under its control as recently as February.
Sinam Mohamad, the Syrian Democratic Council’s envoy to Washington, told Defense News in May that she has engaged lawmakers and the State Department “at senior levels” to urge them not to approve the F-16 sale.
The top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, James Risch of Idaho, also has the authority to block the F-16 sale and noted that “the situation is fluid right now.”
Risch has not yet given the green light for the sale to proceed. Still, he told Defense News in May that he was “positively disposed in that direction, but I’m not completely there yet.”
Turkey’s reputation on Capitol Hill plummeted following its 2019 S-400 acquisition and attack on the Syrian Kurds that same year, but recently Ankara has managed to claw back some goodwill in Congress over its support for Ukraine.
The chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Democrat Gregory Meeks of New York and Republican Mike McCaul of Texas, have both indicated that they would not block the sale so long as Turkey continue to work with the U.S. to address outstanding issues.
The House voted 244-179 last week to add an amendment from Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., to its annual defense authorization that would require Biden to submit “a detailed description of concrete steps” to ensure that Turkey does not use the F-16s to violate Greek airspace before proceeding with any sale. The amendment also requires that Biden certify that the F-16 sale is in U.S. national security interests.