Turkey’s Shanghai complex

Turkey’s Shanghai complex

It is barely a year since Turkish authorities came to understand that it would not be possible for a Chinese company to build Turkey’s first long range air and anti-missile defense system and make the system interoperable with NATO and Turkish assets in Turkey. It had curiously taken Ankara two years to come to that otherwise quite straightforward understanding. Now the Turkish understanding seems to be rewinding back to the near impossibility.  

Defense Minister Fikri Işık said that if Western countries refused to share critical missile technology with Turkey, it would be out of the question for Turkey to close the door to non-NATO countries like Russia and China (about acquiring that critical missile technology). Some officials even suggest that Turkey could cooperate with Russia in its indigenous fighter jet program.  

Apparently Turks do not learn from past mistakes, and this exposes their country to the risk of perilous delays in having access to critical defense technology – and at a time when Turkey faces a multitude of symmetrical and asymmetrical threats in one of the world’s most volatile regions.  

The story of T-LORAMIDS, the planned air defense system, is full of irony and reveals many of the usual maladies within the Turkish threat analysis and defense procurement cycle. It was the mid-1990s when the military-government bureaucracy decided that the country “urgently” needed air and anti-missile defense capabilities – the same capabilities the government even to this day thinks could be procured from Russia or China.  

In 2013, the Ankara government selected CPMIEC, a Chinese contender, over its U.S., European and Russian rivals. Defense industry observers, including this columnist, warned at the time that a Chinese system could be built but only as a stand-alone architecture and that it could not be made interoperable with any NATO (and/or Turkish) asset. The defense bureaucracy claimed that it could, thanks to miraculous Turkish engineering. Contract negotiations with CPMIEC did not lead to a contract, and in November 2015 the international contest was scrapped altogether. 

The government announced that, instead, a partnership of two Turkish defense companies, Aselsan and Roketsan, would build the system, 100 percent Turkish, national and local. That caused loud laughter among people who knew that the Turkish companies could only build the system, if all the luck was on their side, in 15 to 20 years. That would mean that Turkey would acquire an air defense capability about 40 years after it decided it needed it “urgently.”  

Then, one day, feeling further threatened by an increasing number of hostile state and non-state actors, Turkey opened “parallel” negotiations with the U.S. and European contenders which its government had disqualified in 2013. But in the latest episode of the opera buffa, Ankara is once again giving signals that it may knock on Shanghai’s doors for the air defense architecture, with the people in Beijing and Moscow possibly flashing shy smiles and thinking of smart ways to promise unlimited technology transfer to Ankara and ways to deviate from these promises.  

In NATO capitals, once again, honest people will start warning Turkey that it cannot build a Chinese or Russian air defense system and make it interoperable with NATO (and/or Turkish) assets. And back in the Turkish capital, some people will likely claim that advanced Turkish engineering can make that engineering miracle happen. It promises to be another ostensibly (politically and commercially) exciting but boring cycle…   
The curtain will probably be down on Turkey finally deploying some sort of air and anti-missile system on its territory when that exact system will be displayed at war museums in Western capitals – just like the future Turkish indigenous fighter jet finally taking to the skies just when major world powers are operating unmanned fighters instead of manned jets.