“My colleagues have already signed a deal on S-400s. A deposit has also been paid as far as I know,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week.
Little detail has been disclosed about the deal. According to the available information, Turkey will receive two S-400 missile batteries, probably toward the end of 2019. Two other batteries will be manufactured later in Turkey under license. The software for the “identification of friend or foe” will be provided by Turkey’s national defense industry companies and mounted in Russia before the delivery.
Ankara’s decision to purchase S-400s did not come out of the blue. When the second Gulf War broke out, Turkey asked its NATO allies to deploy Patriot missiles in the airports close to the Iraqi border to protect it against possible air attacks.
The NATO allies reluctantly agreed, but attached several conditions. To add insult to injury, the US, Germany and the Netherlands declined to renew their deployment and withdrew their missiles from Turkey while instability in the region continued.
Turkey was severely disappointed with this attitude of its NATO allies. It started to look for the establishment of its own missile-defense system and opened a tender to this effect. The bids submitted by the NATO countries turned out to be much more expensive. Turkey’s request to manufacture some of the equipment in Turkey, with some technology transfer, fell on the deaf ears of its allies.
China’s bid emerged as the most suitable, but the deal could not be concluded. The one with Russia was.
Turkey has the second largest army in NATO after the US. It is part of the NADGE (NATO Air Defense Ground Environment), which is the best integrated air defense system in the world.
NADGE is supported by another NATO system called AWACS (Airborne Warning and Command System). Even a few seconds are important for the identification and interception of a missile directed at your country. Since AWACS is airborne, it has the capability to see deeper into the enemy territory, and therefore notice earlier the launching of any enemy missile.
Buying an air defense system from Russia does not mean that Ankara has turned its back on NATO, but is more a sign of good relations with Moscow.
The S-400s are efficient in destroying enemy aircraft or land-based targets. To destroy a missile in mid-air requires utmost precision. The defense missile does not collide head-on with the enemy missile. It explodes on the trajectory of the incoming missile in the fraction of a second before they meet and prevents it from reaching its target.
Some defense analysts have claimed that the deal with Russia is an indication that Turkey expects an attack from the West. Turkey’s accession negotiations to the EU are stuck. There are strong criticisms directed at Turkey’s human rights record both in NATO and in the EU.
In the long run anything may happen, but there is no convincing evidence that Turkey may become the target of an attack from the West in the foreseeable future. Therefore, it is safer to interpret the deal as a sign of good relations between Turkey and Russia rather than as a sign of a probable military clash between Turkey and a Western country.
Since S-400s are not designed to be inter-operable with NADGE there will be duplication, which will cost Turkish taxpayers a little more than $2.5 billion, but the political meaning of the deal is probably more important than its contribution to Turkey’s defense.
NATO allies’ reaction to the deal has varied.
The Pentagon used careful language, expressing its concern and saying that “generally it’s a good idea for NATO allies to buy inter-operable equipment.” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel went further and said Berlin would put on hold all arms exports to Turkey. There are other reasons for this decision by Germany, but the S-400s issue has provided an additional excuse.
Despite the eroding mutual trust, Turkey is likely to stay in NATO, but also enjoy good relations with Russia. This may be a convenient modus vivendi between NATO and Russia as well.
• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party.