Turkey’s difficult task to choose its allies

Turkey’s misgivings on whether it could blindly rely on its NATO allies started to surface in the early 1960s. 

In 1962, then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy negotiated with Russia to remove the Jupiter missiles deployed in Turkey in exchange for Russia giving up the delivery of its own missiles to Cuba. Kennedy did this without consulting the Turkish authorities.

The second test for the alliance was in 1964, when then-U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent a letter to the Turkish prime minister of the time, Ismet Inönü, intimating to him that, if the Soviet Union decided to take military action against Turkey, NATO may not come to Turkey’s aid.

The third was the arms embargo that the United States imposed on Turkey as a result of Turkey’s military action in Cyprus in 1974 to prevent Greece’s annexation of the island. This embargo became the trigger for Turkey to consider manufacturing its own weapons and military equipment. It took several years - even decades - to put this programme into action. 

The first serious attempt was made in the 1980s when Turgut Özal was prime minister. He encouraged the manufacturing of relatively simple components for weapons, and this later expanded to more sophisticated weapons and ammunitions. The manufacture of armoured vehicles and tanks turned out to be very successful and Turkey started to export them to several countries. 

The turnover of the defence and aerospace industry in Turkey has increased tenfold in the last twenty years. Turkey has also designed, developed and manufactured relatively sophisticated trainer aircraft and helicopter gunships. 

At the turn of the millennium, domestic production met only 30 to 35 percent of the Turkish army’s requirement, but this figure now exceeds 70 percent, and $70 billion worth of defence equipment is manufactured now compared to about $5 billion twenty years ago. 

The performance of drones manufactured in Turkey was a pleasant surprise even for Turkish generals when they were employed against Syrian government forces in Idlib last month. Their excellent performance also increased the morale of the drones’ manufacturers and their users alike.   

In other words, the U.S. embargo ironically played a positive role in Turkey’s acquisition of nationally manufactured weapons and defence equipment.  

This background of development in its defence industry helped make Turkey self-confident but also errant. The process started with Turkey’s opening in the early 2010s of a tender to purchase a reliable long-range air and anti-missile defence system. The lowest compliant bid was submitted by a Chinese company. After protracted negotiations, Turkey decided to step back from signing a contract with it because of U.S. sanctions on that Chinese company.

In view of the growing threats in its neighbourhood, Turkey did the right thing by opening another tender for the same purpose. It invited the U.S. defence firm Raytheon, which manufactures the Patriot missiles, a French-Italian joint venture SAMP/T and the Russian manufacturers of the S-400 air defence system to the tender. The Russian offer turned out to be the lowest compliant bid. Turkey was still inclined to buy the Patriots, but the cost was $4 billion compared to $2.5 billion for the S-400s. 

Furthermore, the United States offer did not include technology transfer, a condition that Turkey was very much eager to secure. Whether the S-400 deal included technology transfer remains unclear. Media comments said that even if there were some stipulations for technology transfer for the S-400s, these were only for simple components of the system.  

So, Turkey signed the contract to buy the S-400 systems, which have now been delivered and are scheduled to become operational this month. 

We do not know whether a thorough assessment has been made in the Turkish bureaucracy from the strategic standpoint before deciding to purchase S-400. If it was made, those who contributed to this decision must have erred, because later developments proved that they could not properly assess all of the strategic implications of the decision. They did not take into consideration that this was, at the same time, a choice between Russia or the trans-Atlantic community. The decision may have been adopted at the height of a failed military coup in 2016, when Turkey’s trust for the NATO was at its lowest point and trust for Russia was at its highest. 

A strategic mistake cannot be corrected with tactical measures. This is the dilemma that Turkey is now trying to sort out.