Why Turkey is pushing ahead with the Russian S-400 missile deal

Turkey has refused a U.S. offer to buy Patriot air defence missiles. The United States had hoped that by offering Turkey speedy delivery of the missiles this year that Ankara would agree not to go ahead with its purchase of similar Russian S-400s.  

Instead, Turkey remains adamant that it will go ahead with the S-400s, which could complicate future U.S. arms sales, especially the delivery of the 100 advanced stealthy fifth-generation Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II aircraft Turkey has ordered.

According to two unnamed Turkish officials cited by Bloomberg, Ankara could not accept the U.S. offer since it did not include either a loan agreement, or a pact to share the system's technology.

The United States opposes the S-400 deal since the Russian system is not compatible with Western-made NATO systems. Washington also fears that if the Turkish military operated both the F-35s and S-400s, it would allow Russia to glean sensitive information about the advanced fighter jets.

Joseph Trevithick, a military expert at The War Zone journal, outlined the U.S. government's concerns about the S-400 deal.

“The first primary U.S. government objection about the sale is that the S-400 does not meet NATO standards, that it might not be able to both integrate with other existing weapon systems, sensors, or networks seamlessly and that allied forces don't really know its capabilities and how that would fit, or not, with existing doctrine and operational planning constructs,” he said.

Trevithick also explained how Turkey's S-400s could give the Russians “an opportunity to gauge how well the system does or doesn't work against the F-35.”

“The concern here would be that Russian technicians and trainers who are almost certainly going to be in Turkey helping the Turkish military learn to use their new weapons could be in a position to gain valuable intelligence, such as what the F-35's signature looks like on the S-400's radars,” he said.

“Turkey has zero experience with the S-400 or its predecessors and will need Russian assistance of some kind in order to become proficient in the system.”

This risk would increase, he said, if Turkey “follows through with publicly announced plans to make sure the S-400 can fully integrate with their existing air defence and other military networks, potentially those linked directly to the F-35, meaning that Russian technicians and other personnel might end up with access to all sorts of data in the process.”
“It is fair to ask how realistic these risks are, but it's also safe to say that the Russians would not miss a single opportunity to exploit the situation if possible,” he said. “It's also important to note that Turkish purchases of the S-400 could be an opportunity for Western intelligence agencies to get a peek at them, too.”

The extent of interoperability of S-400s with other NATO standard systems is presently unclear. Although Trevithick is certain that the S-400s “won't be compatible 'out of the box' with NATO networks and doctrines.”

Turkey's neighbour Greece is also a NATO member and possesses Russian S-300PMU-1s, the older brother of the S-400, which are also not interoperable with NATO. Turkey has pointed to Greece's possession of these missiles and argued that a blatant double standard exists at its expense.

“What the Turkish government leaves out, in that case, is that the Greeks only ended up with those systems as part of a deal to remove them from Cypriot hands after Turkey threatened a pre-emptive strike,” Trevithick said, referring to the 1998 Cyprus S-300 crisis.

Nevertheless, Turkey has expressed interest in buying U.S. Patriots in the past. Its existing air defence system consists of antiquated American-made HAWK missiles and short-range British Rapiers, systems that are much older and far less sophisticated than the Patriot or S-400.

Turkey tried, in 2013, to buy Chinese-made FD-2000 missiles, which are comparable to the Russian S-300, but cancelled due to pressure from its Western NATO allies, who warned Ankara at the time that “their partnerships in certain fields would not be able to continue if Turkey buys missiles from China.”

“Turkey has articulated very clearly that it has a requirement for a long-range surface-to-air missile system with at least a limited ballistic missile defence capability,” Trevithick said.

“It's worth pointing out that NATO member states have deployed Patriots to Turkey for exactly this purpose on multiple occasions, including during Desert Storm to guard against Saddam's Scuds and when Assad when using his Scuds to full effect in the earlier stages of the Syrian civil war.”

Syrian Scud missiles have crashed in Turkish territory during the Syrian conflict.

In 2013 it was revealed that the primary mission of NATO Patriot batteries in Turkey was to protect a radar tracking Iranian missile launches rather than defend Turkish airspace and population centres. This showcased the limitations for Turkey on relying on other countries' missile defence systems for protection.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said last April there would be no restrictions regarding joint production of S-400s in Turkey or the transfer of the system's technology to Ankara. “It is a purely commercial matter that is agreed between economic entities,” he said.

But the extent of technology transfer and co-production remains unclear.

“Technology transfer is a core component of Turkish procurement policy, and has been since the late 1970s,” said Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

“What is odd about the S-400 is that Turkey brushed that requirement aside,” he said. “By almost all accounts, Russia is not offering any serious transfer of technology or offsets for Turkish industry.”

“I haven't seen any serious agreement for co-production and licensing. Until then, it would seem that Turkey is buying off the shelf, while demanding allies do more,” Stein said.

Timur Akhmetov, an Ankara-based Russia-Turkey researcher at the Russian International Affairs Council think-tank, said: “Russian officials claim that transfer is possible and even localisation of production, but they insist that it wouldn't cover critical parts.”

Akhmetov said it was important for Turkey to “get as many modern technologies as possible … For Turkey's burgeoning defence industry, it is not only critical to be able to produce, but also to export new weapon systems,” he said.

Turkey has an issue, he said, “with European and U.S. governments trying to bind technical cooperation to political demands” which “means Turkey cannot replicate or resell weapon systems to third countries without the authorisation of the companies that make them.”

Akhmetov said the F-35 deal with Turkey, like the S-400, “is not only a defence project but also a commercial project.”

“If you follow how relevant Russian officials comment on the U.S.-Turkey consultations, you can see that with S-400 Russia doesn't want to threaten NATO security in any way,” he said.

“It is primarily a commercial and business strategy to curb some space in the global market traditionally occupied by U.S. companies.”

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