The political price of Turkey's S-400 purchase is far higher than $2.5 billion

Reuters reported on April 20 that Turkey’s plans to switch to the Russian S-400 missile defence system had been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and unspecified technical problems, citing an anonymous senior Turkish official. The report is likely to be true as there was no rebuttal, implying that the news may have been leaked to acclimatise the public to the reversal on the widely debated issue.

Of course, the senior official was telling a cock and bull story about the delay. While Turkey’s involvement in the wars in Syria and Libya continues unhindered by COVID-19, how can the virus prevent the activation of a defence system back home?

The S-400 batteries were brought to Ankara in the summer of 2019, and the missiles arrived in autumn, accompanied by the sumptuous blessings of the pro-government Turkish media. The system has been installed and tests have been completed. Turkish army personnel responsible for the operation finished their training in Russia.

It will not be a surprise if Russia makes an embarrassing announcement that there are no technical issues regarding the S-400s. 

The Reuters report is a harbinger that the S-400s are now be left to rot in the warehouse. A total of $2.5 billion of taxpayers’ money will be thrown away.

Several top government officials firmly said countless times that it was a done deal. They insisted there would be no going back on it.

But it seems that now they will have to swallow their words. We are heading toward the worst arms purchase failure in the history of Turkey. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)'s S-400 misadventure may go down in history as the most costly arms sales in the world ever.

Since the S-400s cannot be integrated into Turkey's existing electronic surveillance systems, its main function, the missile defence capability, would be close to zero. Technology transfer was zero. Although all this was known, the government made a decision on purely political grounds to go forward with the purchase.

Some commentators point out that the plans to activate the S-400 missile systems are being shelved because of the economic problems faced by Turkey, the possibility of a swap agreement with the U.S. Federal Reserve to address these, rapprochement with the United States in Syria and a desire to maintain good relations between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump.

All of these may be contributing factors to some extent. However, there is a strong fact that forced a bitter about-face, and it is nothing new. The AKP finally hit the wall of realities that has existed since they first signed the deal.

Missing out on NATO's fifth generation F-35 fighter jets carries unacceptable security risks for Turkey. With its own fleet of new generation jets, Greece can take air superiority, increase its territorial waters to 12 miles (19.3 kilometres) and exert full control over the Aegean sea. Balance in the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, including Cyprus, may also be turned upside down.

No government in Ankara can afford such risks. I am sure that military experts have given quite a number of briefings to AKP decision makers on various realistic scenarios.

The S-400 misadventure shows the government's ability to calculate the second and third steps in its strategy to be less than perfect. The desire to have both F-35s and S-400s simultaneously shows that they are not fully in grasp of what these systems mean for the United States and Russia.

The F-35s were developed especially with Russia and China in mind. This platform is the backbone of the U.S. strategy in possible conventional conflicts in the coming decades. The strategy is based on rapidly gaining supremacy in Russian airspace in the very first phase of a war. Among the various military deployments, the stealth F-35 platforms, equipped with cutting edge avionics, are not just any old aircraft and will play a central role in U.S. operations.

S-400s, and soon S-500s, will undertake a similar key role in Russia's defence of its airspace, of course, along with other military components .

It was obvious that the United States would not tolerate the use of such a vital military platform as the F-35s alongside the S-400s that Russia will deploy against them. So far no NATO member country ever conceived of something like that, either.

The Turkish government’s relentless insistence on purchasing two systems that are incompatible with each other indicates that it doesn’t maintain a realistic comprehension of these facts.

When the government could not find a way out, it attempted to address the problem by creating a joint commission with U.S. officials, but the Pentagon flatly refused this. At the United Nations General Assembly of November 2019, the Turkish government tried to solve the issue through Trump, but this did not help either. In a last effort, it proposed that the commission should be headed by NATO, but this had no impact, either.

Despite the Pentagon’s opposition, the U.S. president can decide, for example, to withdraw troops from Syria. He can also withdraw soldiers from Iraq. But no president can put the F-35s at risk, as they are considered to be directly tied to U.S. security. Trump has not even tried this yet.

In the meantime, the Turkish government kept saying that it still had options. It said Turkey would build its own fifth generation fighter jets. The possibility of Turkey producing on its own an equivalent of the F-35s in a reasonable time is low. To achieve that under a brawl with the West is practically non-existent.  

In fact, if the AKP believed that it could build fighter jets of its own, it would probably not back down from activating the S-400s.

Meanwhile, they started negotiations with Russia on its new-generation SU-57 fighter jets. The pro-government media in Turkey praised an eventual deal with Russia, claiming that Turkey would get two SU-57s for the price of one F-35.

But the SU-57 is not yet listed in the Russian air force inventory, and it is technically behind the F-35. This is demonstrated by the Indian Air Force’s withdrawal from the SU-57 programme in 2018 on the basis that it did not meet 5th generation criteria regarding stealth technologies, avionics, radars and sensors.

Added to that, the SU-57 deal for Turkey will result in more strategic damage than benefit. Turkey's cooperation with the United States and NATO will come to a standstill, and several vital pieces of equipment such as F-16s, Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters, and different missile systems of the Turkish armed forces will be quickly unavailable.

So, the SU-57 move also fell apart. The government has returned to square one and come to the point I predicted a year ago: Ankara will stretch the rope as much as it can and back down at the very last moment just before it breaks, after a long period of friction with the United States that sees its own interests take a battering.

That is exactly what happened, but it is not over yet.

It will not be enough to simply say that the S-400 will not be activated; a return to initial circumstances is now impossible. The loss will not be limited to the $2.5 billion Turkey paid for the missiles alone.

The whole world, including the United States and Russia, has seen that there is an unpredictable government in Ankara making zig zags often. The loss of trust will be the most consequential damage.

We will see negative consequences for Turkey's relations with Russia in Syria and elsewhere. 

While Turkey may be accepted to the F-35 programme, it will likely mean years of delivery delays and perhaps revised prices.

According to the initial plans, Turkey’s Eskişehir province would be the major maintenance centre for all F-35s in Europe and Turkey would gain significant financial and technological benefits. After the S-400 dispute the new maintenance centre has been shifted to the Netherlands, and we don’t know whether a reversal will be possible.

Washington will probably seek assurances that Turkey in the future will not activate the S-400s in the warehouse, before it agrees to deliver the F-35s at all.

How will the United States be sure about that? Will it periodically send inspectors or ask Ankara to sign a written deal with stipulations, ensuring that Russian defence systems will not be activated? And what will Russia have to say about this? We shall see.

The AKP's path, which began by again and again avowing that Turkey is a sovereign country, may end up with Ankara handing over all reins of control over the S-400s warehouse to the United States. 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.