Is Turkey withdrawing from NATO?

Is Turkey withdrawing from NATO?

Last week, the news fell like a bombshell. Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz declared at the Turkish parliament that Turkey’s new defense missile system, to be purchased most probably from China, would not be integrated with NATO’s system. This kicked off a hot discussion on whether Turkey is changing its strategic affiliation and might ultimately withdraw from NATO.

The long-range missiles have been on top of Turkey’s agenda for a long while. In September 2013, Ankara declared that it had awarded its missile defense system tender to a Chinese firm - after which NATO, and the U.S. in particular, raised concerns and gave a sharp reaction. This was not only because this Chinese firm is included in the U.S.’s sanction list, but also because the Chinese missiles could not be integrated with NATO’s defense system.

It has been widely argued that Turkey has been using this as a bargaining chip with other companies at the table.

On top of this, the defense minister’s declaration last week heated up the discussion. Is Turkey breaking up its alliance with NATO? Ironically, this questioning coincided with the 63rd anniversary of Turkey’s NATO membership.

In order to find the lay of the land, I had the chance to talk with some officials in Ankara last week. First of all, it should be said that the tender has not been finalized yet. However, the most surprising part is there has been a shift away from China towards France-Italy.

In the original tender there had been four proposals: The Chinese company (China Precision Machinery Export-Import Corporation / CPMIEC); Russian firm Rosoboronexport,; Eurosam, which is co-owned by France and Italy; and the U.S.’s Raytheon, which produces the Patriot missiles.

Turkey had also outlined three main criteria: Price, time of delivery, and joint production.

The U.S. company offered a “very high” price and didn’t accept co-production, while the Russian firm accepted joint production but also offered a stiff price. Hence, these two options were eliminated and two choices remained: China and France-Italy.

The Chinese option had been the most advantageous, but officials shared with me last week that Eurosam recently became more advantageous and preferable to China.

But why is this so important? What is the difference between purchasing the missiles from China or purchasing them from a NATO country? Sinan Ülgen, the chairman of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) and a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, answered this question interestingly.

Ülgen said the missiles will not be able to benefit from NATO’s infrastructure at all if they are not integrated with NATO. By this he means specifically the “real time intelligence signaling” provided by NATO. What does that mean? “It means that missiles will be semi-blind,” he said, since they will not sense NATO signals.

In addition, the radar system based in Malatya, Turkey, which is a NATO missile shield, would also not be compatible with Chinese missiles.

Is there any NATO country that has purchased missiles from China? No. But there is one NATO member using missiles that are outside of NATO’s system: Greece. Athens bought missiles from Russia in 1996 that were not integrated with NATO.

So why is it a problem for Turkey if it buys missiles from China? First of all, Turkey’s environment is much more problematic than the one that faces Greece. Therefore, its need for NATO’s signals is much more significant. In addition, NATO did not yet have a defense system when Greece purchased the Russian missiles. The system came under NATO’s shield only in 2010.

Moreover, initially the U.S. was aiming at building the system in Poland and the Czech Republic. However, it ultimately decided to launch the system under NATO’s umbrella when Turkey’s insistence played a significant role. For these reasons, Ülgen says it would be politically problematic if Turkey’s system remained outside of NATO’s system.

Last but not least: China presents a problem in itself. First of all, the Turkish company that becomes the partner of this Chinese firm would be automatically included in the U.S.’s sanction list as well. Furthermore, NATO does not want to integrate the Chinese system into its own sensitive security infrastructure because it doesn’t want its confidential information to fall into China’s hands. The U.S. is also anxious about a cyber-attack via China’s system.

To cut a long story short: Giving preference to Eurosam seems to be a healthy decision for Turkey.