Turkish delight for NATO

Turkish delight for NATO

When, precisely three months ago, I wrote in this newspaper – but in another column – that the Turkish government was preparing to select a Chinese company, among a bunch of U.S., European and Russian options, to build the country’s first long-range air and anti-missile architecture, my NATO acquaintances simply looked appalled. Shyly hiding their disbelief, the men in uniform sporting different flags on their chests simply smiled at the possibility of what would be a genuine irony: Would Turkey, militarily protected by NATO and its assets, go for a rival system when extremely critical military technology was at stake? Polite smiles at the insanity of what my column claimed, followed by “certainly not’s.” 

As often I do, I was shocked at others’ shock at last Friday’s announcement that Turkey had chosen the Chinese solution in its slow-moving military program to build a powerful air defense system that comes with a price tag of anywhere between $3 billion and $3.5 billion – or $4 billion for a non-Chinese system. Would Turkey? Almost certainly yes. 

For a number of reasons, “Turkey, militarily protected by NATO and its assets stationed on its soil could go for a rival system even when at stake was a critical military technology.” This is a challenge – militarily and politically. 

First, the choice of the HQ-9, the Chinese air defense system, on a ceteris paribus basis, reflects a Turkish extremity about building “Turkish” weapon systems whether and whenever possible, perhaps possible or perhaps impossible. After the originally off-the-shelf acquisition plan was restructured in January to “co-production,” the Chinese contender, CPMIEC, almost stood alone for victory with commitments for “full” technology transfer – whether or not these commitments should be fulfilled. What mattered for the Chinese was to win the contract; the terms could always be amicably and discreetly worked out later. Funny, we now have smiling faces in Turkey and China; the Turks, because they think they will be able to build a complex “Turkish” military system based on Chinese technology; and the Chinese, because they won a big, critical contract from a NATO customer country. 
Second, and politically, the Turkish quest for the “dragon kiss” is perfectly consistent with its foreign policy calculations, nowadays portrayed as “precious solitude” in the words of the prime minister’s chief foreign policy advisor. 

Just as Turkey unwillingly shapes its foreign policy, the Sino-Turkish air defense system will most likely be a “standalone” shield since NATO member states have no intention of integrating the HQ-9 with the NATO assets in Turkey – as evinced by Washington’s thinly veiled declaration on Monday. Allow me to use a simple metaphor to explain this. 

You live in Turkey and intend to buy a nice TV set. The available satellite system in your apartment offers you a number of pre-set TV channels to watch. Half of these channels are Western and half are Turkish. One day you decide to buy your fancy made-in-China plasma TV, the “Shanghai Dragon.” 

Your technician says some of the Turkish TV channels available could be watched with the existing software on your Shanghai Dragon, but to watch the Western channels, you need interface data. And to obtain interface data you must apply to the “Union of Western Broadcasters” which openly views Chinese TV manufacturers as hostile. So simple. Now go back to your local technician to see if you could one day successfully receive a signal from your Turkish channels. 

You feel proud because some parts of your “Shanghai Dragon” may have been assembled in Turkey. You can also feel smart because you paid only $325 for your smart “Shanghai Dragon” while your friends paid $400 for their smart Western-made TVs. As Vago Muradian, editor-in-chief of the U.S. weekly Defense News, put it: “It’s a penny-wise, pound-foolish move.” 

Is this the end of the story? Not yet. Turkish defense procurement history is full of less-than-half-baked, Kodak-moment celebrations which later crawl on for several years only to end with a shy official statement that says “contract negotiations have failed,” or “the contract has been scrapped,” or “it has been restructured for a new competition.” 

Until then, the Turkish delight will surely be served to sour, unwilling faces at NATO headquarters.