The Chinese may have their complex calculations about setting foot on NATO soil with a wooden construction that looks like a dragon inspired by an ancient horse. But the Turkish decision to welcome the Chinese dragon is not only problematic from a NATO angle.
A saying often attributed to Mark Twain, “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme,” could be true for the chronic Turkish maladies about knowing which security threats Turkey really faces and which ones it thinks it does but it in fact does not.
Modern Turkey has never been impressively accurate about assessing what its real security threats are and are not, or which threats to more realistically prioritize. When the Kurdish insurgency was knocking on its doors, the Crescent and Star’s warplane pilots were dogfighting with their Greek counterparts. When its southern borders were in flames, the Turkish military kept troops on alert against the possibility of a land invasion from tiny Armenia.
When northern Iraq was more than a threat, Turkey was busy threatening Syria. When Syria would soon be an even bigger threat, Ankara was wholeheartedly befriending Damascus. When Baghdad was an emerging threat, Ankara was busy helping its allies topple Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in Libya. When Iran was becoming a nuclear threat, Ankara sought diplomacy. When Russia and the United States agreed to favor diplomacy over war on Syria, Ankara sought war.
When it quietly felt threatened by Iran, Ankara secretly knocked on its Western allies’ doors while championing Muslim solidarity “with our Iranian brothers.” When it felt threatened by a Syrian chemical attack, it not-so-quietly knocked on NATO’s door.
When it thought it could make a habit of spying on Syrian/Russian air defenses on the Mediterranean coast, it lost a reconnaissance aircraft (and two pilots) and rushed to NATO for protection. When it made it a blood feud and sought to topple the dictator in Damascus, it failed to realize it had become neighbors with al-Qaeda on the other side of the Syrian border.
When it keeps focusing on the Syrian threat, the radical Islamist threat, already a neighbor, will be knocking on its door. When Syria’s machinery of subversion was plotting to subcontract out bombings on Turkish soil, the Turkish defense planning machinery was busy deciding which naval landing platform would best suit its needs. Where, really, will the Turkish Navy land troops, tanks and helicopters? Cyprus, again? Greece? Ukraine? Russia? Bulgaria? Romania?
When some Turkish scientists cannot even properly fly a “Turkish” drone which has a foreign engine, landing gear, automatic takeoff and landing system, mission computer and a foreign name, other Turkish scientists are busy building an all-Turkish ballistic missile with a 2,500-km range. No one knows which unlucky capitals are Turks’ potential enemies: London? Moscow? Tel Aviv? Cairo? Tehran?
And now Turkey has decided to build an air defense architecture based on threat perceptions belonging to a decade-and-a-half ago.
It is no secret that the Chinese air defense shield for which Turkey intends to spend a good $3.44 billion may in theory be fairly good (or not bad) for air defenses, but it would be practically next to useless in defending a vast territory against any serious missile threat. Turkey’s defense procurement bureaucracy admits that the priority for Ankara (probably as defined by the end-user, the Air Force) is air defenses, with missile defense coming into the picture as secondary only.
But what air defenses? Will Turkey in the next decade(s) have to defend itself against enemy aircraft coming from Persian lands? The Iraqi Air Force? Syrian warplanes? The almighty Armenian Air Force? Sorties of Hellenic air raids? Or would the Chinese-built air defenses defend Turkey against Russian bombers? Would Russia ever send bombers if it wanted to strike?
The fact is, speaking strictly realistically, Turkey faces and will, in the foreseeable future, be facing multiple missile threats, not air. And the air and anti-missile defenses it intends to build with Chinese technology and portray as a “national system” will primarily target air attacks, with very limited or, to be more precise, no capabilities to counter enemy missiles.
Once again, the Turks have got it wrong.