S-400 purchase to cost Turkey $9 billion and damage NATO solidarity

As the White House and Pentagon formally announced that Turkey’s participation in the programme to build and fly F-35 stealth fighters would be suspended, a closer look may help better understand the implications of this decision.

The Pentagon says it has done everything to meet Turkey’s legitimate air defence requirements by offering to sell Patriot missiles, if Ankara does not buy the Russian S-400 air defence system and consistently informed the Turkish government at every level that it cannot have both the S-400s and F-35s. 

It is true that the United States has gone as far as it could to meet Turkey’s demands, but another truth is that these efforts were not sufficient to meet all of Ankara’s expectations. 

Firstly, the United States initially refused to sell Patriots to Turkey, a fact confirmed by U.S. President Donald Trump’s statement, who put the blame on the Obama administration when he met Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a recent G-20 meeting in Osaka, Japan. 

Secondly, it took 17 months for the Trump administration to respond to Turkey’s renewed demand and the response fell short of being satisfactory. By that time, Turkey had already placed the order to buy the Russian S-400 system. 

Thirdly, when Turkey was exposed to Islamic State (ISIS) threats from Syria, NATO countries deployed their Patriot missiles along the Turkish border with Syria, but withdrew them before the threat had disappeared. 

Fourthly, military experts, including Americans, question whether the Patriots are superior to the S-400s. This may have been another criterion for Turkey to buy the S-400 missiles. 

Fifthly, the S-400s are $1 billion cheaper than the Patriots. 

Sixthly, Turkey wanted to incorporate technology transfer in the deal, but the United States did not respond that part of the demand. Russian officials say negotiations are underway with Ankara for the production of various components of the S-400s in Turkey. Turkish media commented that the S-400 system is protected at close range by machine guns and short-range Panstir-C1 missiles and that what Russia was referring to may be these components that Turkey is already manufacturing. We will see whether Russia will be prepared to share more sophisticated technology. 

Military analysts in Turkey said Turkish companies produce around seven percent of the of the F-35 components. Substituting the Turkish producers is not impossible, but will involve between $500 million to $600 million additional costs to the entire project. In the absence of Turkish co-producers, every single F-35 will cost $7 million to $8 million more and the delivery of between 50 to 70 aircraft will be delayed by around two years. Turkey will raise its formal objections with the United States after it receives written notification from Washington. 

The United States is looking at this row from a different perspective. Pentagon officials say that 10 Turkish companies have so far manufactured more than $1 billion worth of components for the F-35s. Turkey is going to lose $9 billion over the course of the entire life of the F-35 programme. The United States is looking to wind down Turkey’s participation by March 2020 and, because of the smooth transition, the Pentagon believes the effect of Turkey’s suspension, and eventual removal, from the project will be minimal. 

It is clear that the two sides do not see eye to eye. They are focusing their attention on areas where they believe that their arguments are stronger. 

Furthermore, the case of Turkish pilots and maintenance personnel does not seem to have been properly addressed. Will they be allowed to use the experience that they have acquired during their training in Arizona? Since they are part of the Turkish Air Force personnel, could Turkey be prevented from benefiting from this experience?

So far the U.S. expectation was that Turkey might step back eventually from deploying the S-400s, but it is unrealistic for the United States to expect Turkey to do so at this stage. 

After all, these are technical questions that can be solved one way or another. What is more difficult is how to repair the damage dealt to NATO solidarity by Russian President Vladimir Putin.