Turkey flirts with buying even more Russian missile systems

Turkey seems to be offering a compromise to the United States to avoid sanctions for Ankara's purchase of Russian S-400 fighter jets — even as Turkey is in talks to buy more.

al-monitor Russian servicemen sit in the cabins of S-400 missile air defense units in Tverskaya Street before a rehearsal for the Victory Day parade, which marks the anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, in central Moscow, April 29, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva.

Dec 3, 2019

Russia and Turkey have both confirmed they are considering a new deal for Ankara to purchase more S-400 missile systems despite the threat of US sanctions, a Russian news agency reports. However, Turkey appears to be offering a compromise to the United States. 

Alexander Mikheev, director general of Russian state arms exporter Rosoboronexport, said Nov. 26 that Moscow hopes to seal a new deal on the sale of S-400 missile systems to Turkey in the first half of next year. Rosoboronexport is currently under sanctions by the United States for selling weapons to Iran, North Korea and Syria.

“We hope that in the first half of 2020 we will sign the contract documents,” Mikheev said, as cited by RIA News.

He added, “But I want to stress that military technical cooperation with Turkey is not limited to the supply of the S-400s. We have big plans ahead.”

The next day, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu pointed out that in addition to Russian S-400s, the country needs more air defense systems. Cavusoglu reiterated earlier remarks by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Ankara might consider buying American Patriot missile systems.

Al-Monitor reported around the same time that US State Secretary Mike Pompeo had made efforts to alleviate the controversy over the Russian sales of S-400 systems to Turkey and delay new sanctions against Ankara.

Several Russian military experts told the prominent Kommersant newspaper that in the current situation, Ankara is attempting to use more than mere rhetoric to gain room to maneuver. The experts conclude that Turkish Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar’s statement that the S-400 would operate autonomously, without being integrated into the NATO air defense system, represents Turkey’s first compromise with its Western allies. Turkey’s NATO allies view the S-400’s integration into the NATO structure as a threat to their security. Washington worries that Russian engineers could access sensitive information about the US F-35 fighter jet.

It is debatable, however, whether Turkey's offer indeed represents a “compromise." Integration would be technically and politically quite challenging.

Ret. Col. Mikhail Hodarenok, a Russian military expert and columnist, said he believes that aligning S-400 controls with the automated combat control systems of NATO air defense equipment is technically possible, yet a lot depends on the time and associated costs. To achieve such integration, he argues, specialists would need to solve such problems as frequency alignment, equipment communication compatibility, installation and coding of the target identification system. This would require cooperation between Russian and NATO developers, which is politically impossible.

Thus, the necessity of expensive and complex technical maintenance inherently limits the S-400's functionality. Without integration, a Russian identification radar can be substituted for a Turkish one to ensure that Turkish forces are independent from the S-400 provider while working with NATO air defense systems.

The political factor is also important in this.

A two-day military exercise at Turkey's Murted Air Base, which happened to be held on the anniversary of Turkey's downing of a Russian fighter jet, is a flashy illustration of paradoxical relations in the Russia-Turkey-NATO triangle. In 2015, following the Nov. 24 jet crisis, Moscow rapidly deployed S-400 components in Syria — not only to restrain Turkey, but also to monitor the actions of NATO air forces from the Incirlik base. Currently, Turkish officers are testing Russian-made radars using F-16 Viper and F-4 Phantom jets made in the United States.

The shift of Ankara’s focus in developing its air defense is also significant. In 2012, Syrians downed a Turkish F-4 Phantom aircraft. In 2013, Syrian capabilities were at the core of threats posed to Turkey. Nowadays, however, Ankara is trying to track the threat of American-made aircraft by deploying the S-400 equipped with the Russian substitute radar.

Since the Russian-Turkish rapprochement, cooperation between Moscow and Ankara has been marked by a number of barter deals, with the S-400 agreement standing out as the central one. Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, rightly points out that the deal was entirely a political decision, since the limited use of the S-400 system did not objectively meet the demands the Turkish government had made during the tender for Turkey's long-range air and missile defense system. Back then, China's HQ-9 systems won the competition, but in 2015 Turkey had to break that contract under NATO pressure. 

The purchase of S-400s was ultimately triggered by the 2016 attempted coup in Turkey. Those who rebelled against Erdogan used American F-16 jets and AH-1 Super Cobra helicopters to attack government buildings, the hotel where Erdogan was staying for the moment and the presidential residence area. To keep the jets in the air long enough, KC-135R fuel tankers had to be brought in from Incirlik Air Base. Several months later, Turkey announced the S-400 negotiations.

Thus, the S-400 agreement helped Ankara create independent, object-oriented air defense systems —– an area fraught with conflict with the United States in any case — but one that Turkey otherwise would have difficulty achieving if not for Moscow. At the same time, limited use of the S-400 is the card Erdogan is likely to play with Washington now that US President Donald Trump seems ready to turn a blind eye to Ankara’s steps beyond the "red line."

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