Does Turkey have a long-term air defense plan?
On Sept. 15, the Turkish Defense Ministry announced that the delivery of the second battery of the S-400 air defense systems from Russia was completed. The components of the first and second battery are now deployed at Mürted Air Base near Ankara. The next stage stipulates the installation of these anti-ballistic missiles.
In the meantime, the training of the Turkish military personnel tasked to activate and use these systems has already begun in Russia. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reiterated that these systems will be activated and be ready to use by April 2020, denying claims that the S-400s will be kept in their unopened boxes at a hangar.
In response to criticisms from some NATO members, Turkey has explained many times that the S-400s will be used as a stand-alone system and won’t be integrated into existing NATO air defense systems. That means Turkey is spending around $2.5 billion for a system which can only be used as an independent defense mechanism without granting an added value to existing security architecture.
In addition, Erdoğan has expressed Turkey’s interest in cooperating with Russia in its plans to develop S-500 systems. The Turkish president made it clear, therefore, that his government is not running after short-term cooperation but a long-term one with joint ventures.
On the anti-ballistic missile side, Turkey is also in talks with other suppliers. In an interview with Reuters on Sept. 13, Erdoğan said: “I said no matter what package of ... S-400s we get, we can buy from you a certain amount of Patriots.”
Erdoğan says ready to buy Patriots
Erdoğan explained that he told this to U.S. President Donald Trump in a phone conversation recently. Trump was stunned to hear Turkey’s interest in buying around $3.5 billion worth in Patriot systems, the Turkish president said. That’s why Trump has asked Erdoğan twice whether he is sure on it. This will surely be an issue on the table when the two men will come together in the United States later this month on the sidelines of the annual UN General Assembly meetings.
At the same time when Turkey is in a big business with Russia and the U.S., it’s also in a process with a French/Italian consortium, the Eurosam, over the joint production of their SAMP/T air defense systems. As a result of a protocol between the parties, a definition study that was launched in early 2018 is expected to be completed in the coming months, before the end of 2019.
The Eurosam offers a technology transfer, co-manufacturing the SAMP/T systems and exporting them to the third countries. Plus, they can be integrated into the NATO systems.
The second most important pillar of the air defense is the quality and strength of the air forces. As a NATO ally, Turkey’s air forces have long been made of F series jetfighters obtained from the U.S. The F-16s, for example, are making the backbone of today’s air forces of Turkey since the 1980s.
It was in this context that Turkey had participated in the F-35 project in the early 2000s. Those who were drafting Turkey’s long-term air defense system at that time had projected that the F-16s would be discarded by mid-2030 and be better replaced by fifth-generation stealth fighters. Not only for retail but Turkey has taken an active role in the production chain as more than a dozen national defense industry companies have produced hundreds of key parts of the aircraft.
Russia-made jets in Turkish skies?
If there were no drastic change in the U.S. position, Turkey’s return to the F-35 program is unlikely, leaving Turkey’s plans for a strong air defense in the coming decade in the dark. Perhaps the Turkish government thinks that the savior will again be found in Russia as Erdoğan did intentionally blink an eye to purchasing SU-35 or SU-57 at his visit to a Russia aviation fair last month. Russian officials will sure go after a deal with Turkey as initial talks have already been launched following Erdoğan’s examination of the aircrafts last month.
Turkey’s flirting with Russia on SU-57 may still be interpreted as a message to Washington, but those who perfectly remember late 2016 and early 2017 will recall the same process over the S-400 deal.
As this column explained in previous editions, acquisition of an air defense system and a large fleet of jetfighters from a non-NATO producer are two different things. The latter will sure lead to a dramatic disconnection of Turkey from the NATO defense shield.
Many of these problems have surely stemmed from political disagreements, which had obliged Turkey to seek options to address its defense needs. The U.S. unwillingness to provide Turkey with Patriots is a good example of this.
However, there is a bigger problem with Turkey. A decision-making process on defense-related issues require tailor-made planning in line with the country’s immediate and long-term security needs and foreign policy vision.
A collective mind with the participation of the military and defense industry experts should be sought to avoid grave mistakes that could jeopardize the security environment.
Today’s government is doing vice versa. It first makes a decision on the acquisition of certain military equipment and then seeks to frame it in a political picture. Turkey has long been trying to explain that these acquisitions are part of recently generated multi-dimensional foreign and security policy and this does not necessarily mean that it deteriorates Turkey’s allied bonds. This is an assumption that has long ago failed to convince Western capitals.
In brief, many of these acquisitions are being done without bottom-to-top evaluation. They remain a political decision aiming at resolving some short-term problems. Turkey gestures to Russia by buying S-400s in return for military achievements in Syria, offers to buy Patriots from the U.S. to return to the F-35 program, then flirts with Russia on Russian fighters to avoid a new refugee inflow from Idlib.