Why Turkey is buying the Russian S-400 air defence system and why it’s making the US mad: A Turkish perspective

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Turkey is buying an air defence system, the formidable S-400, from Russia. The deal has sparked fury from the US government, which is threatening economic sanctions and the withholding of F-35 stealth fighters.

The situation is complicated and heated, there being several reasons for the US’ ire that include: the belief of some in the US that the international community should be united to punish Russia for annexing Crimea; the US wish to sell their own weapon systems; the complication of a NATO nation using high-tech Russian equipment; the risk of Russia accessing information on how well the S-400 system can detect and potentially counter the F-35, the mainstay of NATO’s future warplane force. To further complicate this, three NATO nations already operate Russian air defence systems (Greece, Slovakia & Bulgaria), something Turkish officials are keen to point out. Today the situation grew even more tense, as the two famously hot-headed national leaders, Presidents Trump and Erdoğan fail to resolve the crisis. We spoke to Arda Mevlutoglu to find out more about why Turkey has chosen to buy the S-400 and whether it’s a good idea. 

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Why has Turkey chosen the Russian S-400 air defence system?
The official reply to this question is based upon two main factors:

1. The reluctance and even denial of NATO partners to provide similar systems and technologies, and consequently-

2. (an) Attractive Russian offer. The Russian offer is stated as involving much better terms in pricing, delivery time and joint production.

Last, but not least, S-400 is favoured because of its unrivalled performance, being able to eliminate targets as far as 400km.

However, a close examination of these reasons leads to a different conclusion: the Russian side repeatedly state that the deal involves no transfer of technology or joint production, i.e the systems will be delivered ‘off-the-shelf’. Furthermore, Turkey officially stated that the S-400 system will not be integrated into Turkey’s air defence network, which in turn is a part of NATO air defence early warning system. In other words, S-400 battery will be used ‘standalone’, which will significantly decrease its effectiveness against especially low flying targets. How the interoperability or Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) issues will be resolved is a complete mystery. These inconsistencies suggest that the decision to purchase S-400 was mostly, if not completely a political decision, rather than a technical one.

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Therefore, the S-400 deal should not be examined without taking into consideration the other factors such as Syria, Turkish – Russian rapprochement after the Su-24 incident, and Turkey’s strained relations with the West after the July 15th 2016 coup attempt.”

What are the reasons the US is unhappy about this?

“The main publicised concern is the interference of the S-400 with F-35. Also there has been other issues stated by officials including the risk  of espionage and the weakening of NATO’s stance against Russia.

The S-400 is a very advanced air defence system: It incorporates long range search and tracking radars, can be integrated into different intelligence and target acquisition systems and also has a high-performance command & control system. It is the backbone of Russian air defence today and the centrepiece of its Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy. Today we see scores of S-400 battalions being deployed to annexed Crimea, Kaliningrad and Syria to establish ‘air defence bubbles’. Deployment of a similar system, albeit in a stand-alone mode, is stated as a risk to NATO assets deployed in or by Turkey.

Turkey is a Level III partner of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program and one of the biggest customers of the aircraft with a requirement for 100 F-35As for the air force and around 16 – 20 F-35B STOVL version for the navy. (the F-35B deal is not yet confirmed) As a state-of-the-art 5th generation fighter, F-35 being in close proximity to S-400s is the most prominent concern voiced by NATO and US officials.

“Does Turkey need an S-400 in a standalone mode with so many military, industrial and political consequences? Probably not.” — Arda Mevlutoglu

There is also another issue in terms of industrial and human espionage. Strategic weapon systems such as S-400 are operated in an ‘out of the box and then plug & play’ fashion. The training of their crew, deployment and operation planning, Concept of Operation (CONOPS), maintenance and sustainment of these systems require constant communication and coordination between Turkey and Russia through military, industrial and bureaucratic channels. This fact alone is expressed as a risk, as Russia is officially the number 1 threat to NATO.”

Are the US concerns valid?

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The US concerns are not totally unfounded. It is indeed a risk for NATO assets, one reason being the potential proximity of F-35s to the radars of S-400, especially its engagement radar. There also is a significant risk of HUMINT (human intelligence, traditional spying) operations by Russia, an intelligence gathering approach Russia favours.

What is the the nature of the HUMINT threat?

The main threat here is that Russian spies posing as engineers or advisors coming to Turkey might attempt to infiltrate Turkish / NATO network. Another risk is Russian attempts to engage Turkish personnel. In other words, Russian intelligence might use S-400 delivery / training / support as a disguise for increased espionage activities.
And what exactly is the nature of the fears of the F-35s being near the S-400?
US / NATO circles voiced concerns about S-400’s sensors collecting sensitive information about F-35 such as detailed radar cross section profile, communications and electronic warfare performance. On the other hand, it should not be overlooked that Turkey is one of the oldest members of NATO, participating in many operations and making huge contribution to the collective security of the alliance. Turkey has all the means and capability to assess the possible security and intelligence risks of this programme and is taking measures accordingly. Furthermore, the S-400 is being procured as a national asset, it will not be integrated into the NATO network, meaning that it will be a separate, independent entity.”
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What is the general Turkish view of US Government opinions on the deal?
The Turkish reaction to the US government can be summarised under three main topics: 1. There is widespread frustration and reaction to the US regarding its support to PYD, which is the Syrian branch of the PKK, which is officially recognised as a terrorist organisation by many international organisations and even the US itself. The open support of the US of the PYD is not a factor of the decision for S-400 per se, but it is indeed one of the main reasons for Turkey distancing itself.

2. US (as well as Germany and Netherlands) premature withdrawal of Patriot air defence batteries from Turkey, which were deployed under Operation Active Fence in 2015 created deep impact in the collective memories of Turkish public as well as decision makers. This decision by the three allied countries is seen as “our NATO allies failing to come to our aid in times of need”. The said batteries were subsequently replaced by a SAMP/T battery from Italy and a then a Patriot battery from Spain.

3. The reluctance of NATO allied countries, especially the US, to share know-how and joint production resulted in discomfort in Ankara, which has ambitious plans to establish a self-sufficient defence industry.

More on this story here.

Does Turkey need the S-400?

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“Currently the air defence of Turkey mostly relies on a fleet of around 240 F-16C/D fighter aircraft. Ground based air defence systems consist of Atilgan and Zipkin self-propelled low-altitude air defence systems using FIM-92 Stinger missiles, short-range Rapiers and medium-ranged Hawk XXI missiles Early warning is done through a fleet of four Boeing 737 Peace Eagle AEW&C aircraft, 14 TRS-22XX mobile long-range early warning radars and some NATO radar assets as well as NATO air defence early warning assets. Additionally, the 3rd Main Jet Base in Konya in central Anatolia is a Forward Operating Base for the NATO E-3 AWACS aircraft.

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The requirement for a long-range high-altitude air defence system has been on the agenda since late 1980’s, when Iraq, Iran and Syria were conducting ambitious missile and WMD development programmes. The Gulf War in 1991 underlined this requirement and immediately afterwards, Turkey started studies of ground-based air defence systems. However, budget constraints prevented Turkey from moving forward. It was not until the early 2000’s that it resumed these studies. In 2006, separate projects were started to reinforce the air defence capability: off-the-shelf procurement of long-range air defence systems (LORAMIDS; Long Range Air and Missile Defence System) and low- and medium altitude air defence system development programmess (Hisar A and Hisar O respectively).”

 

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“The LORAMIDS tender saw three companies being shortlisted in late 2013: Chinese CPMIEC, French-Italian EUROSAM and the American Patriot. Turkey started contract negotiation with CPMIEC for the FD-2000 system. But increasing pressure from NATO and disagreements over transfer of technology resulted in the cancellation of the project in late 2015.

Therefore, the answer to the question is —Turkey needs a long-range high-altitude air defence system, but does Turkey need an S-400 in a standalone mode with so many military, industrial and political consequences? Probably not.”

Update on this story here. 

About the author 

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Arda Mevlutoglu is an astronautical engineer. He is currently working as the VP of an international trading and consultancy company, focusing on defense and aerospace sector. He is currently working as the Vice President of Defense Programs at an international trading and consultancy company. His research focuses on defense industry technology, policies and geopolitical assessments, with a focus to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea region. His works have been published in various local and international journals such as Air Forces Monthly, Air International, Combat Aircraft, EurasiaCritic, ORSAM Middle East Analysis. He has been quoted by Financial Times, Reuters, BBC, Al Monitor, CNN Turk and TRT on issues covering Turkish defense industry and military developments.

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5 comments

  1. Vulcan

    Personally I’d RATHER know if the S-400 is capable of detecting and engaging an F-35 BEFORE it comes down to risking lives.

  2. hunter3203

    The US and European countries are more than happy to sell comparable systems to Turkey. What everyone is reluctant to do is turn over technology that cost many Billions to develop and let Turkey turn around and become a competitor with their own system. Oh, and it doesn’t help that Erdogan has become a dictator in the wake of the attempted coup.

    • Vulcan

      Rather curious. What comparable systems does NATO have to offer? I was under the impression the S-400 missile was faster and longer ranged than any NATO system.

  3. Pingback: Turkey, the F-35, and the S-400 - Lawyers, Guns & Money

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