Turkey’s Purchase of a Russian Missile System, Explained

Turkey is going ahead with a deal that its NATO allies have condemned. Why?

Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey meet in Saint Petersburg, August 9, 2016
Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey meet in Saint Petersburg, August 9, 2016 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

Russia sent Turkey a seventh batch of components for the S-400 missile defense system over the weekend. According to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, all S-400 missiles will be deployed by April 2020.

Erdoğan has also said he is planning to send specialists to Russia for training on how to operate the S-400s.

The deal has met stiff resistance from NATO allies, who are threatening to kick Turkey out of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program. So why is it going ahead with the purchase?

Background

Turkey has been working to develop its own ballistic missile defense technology since the temporary deployment of American Patriot air defenses during the First Gulf War. Despite repeated attempts, no joint projects were started. In 2007, Israel and the United States offered to deploy the Arrow 2 defense system to Turkey, but Turkey refused when Israel would not share its technology.

Turkey appeared to have found an alternative in 2010, when the United States promised to include Turkey in a NATO-wide missile defense shield. However, that system wouldn’t cover some of Turkey’s eastern and southeastern areas. The United States argued the gaps could be filled by land-based Aegis missiles, but the slow deployment of Patriots during the Syrian Civil War and their later withdrawal made this proposition sound unconvincing.

Turkey’s search continued. It initially found a Chinese supplier but dropped the deal under pressure from NATO allies. That’s when it turned to Russia.

Why is the deal problematic?

The concern is that if Turkey acquires the S-400 alongside the latest-generation aircraft F-35, its stealth technology could be compromised. NATO allies worry that Russian specialists operating and maintaining the S-400s could gather intelligence about the F-35’s capabilities.

America’s response

Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the American Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has warned that Turkey’s purchase of a Russian air defense system not only violates Western sanctions against Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors but also compromises the F-35. That is why the United States has suspended training of Turkish pilots on the F-35 and held up early delivery of up to 100 aircraft.

Additionally, Congress has warned that if Erdoğan sides with Russia, Turkey will be hit by the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.

Does the S-400 help Turkey address the problems on its southeastern border?

No. It’s only four batteries and while the S-400 is technologically advanced it is simply not enough.

The S-400 system would not provide defense against ballistic missile threats, as it is not integrated in NATO’s air and ballistic missile defense architecture.

It also couldn’t benefit from NATO’s network-based air defense ground environment and satellite detection capabilities, which would significantly decrease the system’s performance. According to retired Turkish general Haldun Solmazturk, “Air defense requires the highest degree of integration.” Introducing the Russian-made S-400 “would be unthinkable,” he said.

So why did the Turks buy the S-400?

One reason could be Turkey’s ambition to become a major arms exporter. Turkey has announced another year of growing defense sales. Compared to the previous year, Turkish defense exports were up 17 percent in 2018. Turkey is selling attack helicopters, figates and unmanned aerial to its longstanding allies, Pakistan and Qatar. If it managed to acquire the S-400, it could potentially develop its own air defense system and sell that as well.

The problem with this theory is that buying the S-400 means worse relations with the United States and other major arms suppliers. Turkey could find it more difficult to obtain crucial foreign subsystems to equip its platforms.

Additionally, if Turkish defense companies are thrown out of the F-35 program, they will lose billions of dollars. If increasing arms exports was the reason behind the S-400 deal, then Erdoğan has definitely overplayed his hand.

Another possibility is that Erdoğan was trying to bluff and force the Americans to transfer the technology of the Patriot missile defense system. That appears to have been the motivation behind the outreach to the Chinese. Even though they offered a low price, favorable technology transfer conditions and early delivery, Turkey still backed out of the deal. Since then, Erdoğan has on multiple occasions tried to negotiate and acquire the Patriot system with technology transfers — unsuccessfully.

Maybe Erdoğan thought that going through with the S-400 deal would force the Americans to sell him Patriots with the technology. When they didn’t budge, he had little choice but to go through with the purchase. Canceling the deal would have made him look weak both at home (where his Justice and Development Party is losing its grip on power) and abroad.

Could this situation have been avoided?

Probably. Had the United States agreed to sell the Patriot air defense system to Turkey under terms similar to those it offered other allies, such as the Netherlands and Spain, there would have been no good reason for Turkey to find another supplier.