The Russian S-400 row: Turkey-US defense ties break apart
In his interview with CBS television which aired on September 24th, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gave very important messages with regards to Turkish – US relations. The tone of Erdoğan’s messages was remarkably bold.
When asked about Turkey’s purchase of the second batch of S-400 air defense systems from the Russian Federation, Erdoğan replied, “…No one can interfere with what kind of defense systems we buy from which country. No one can interfere with this. Only we make these decisions. Commenting on the air force (more precisely, the combat aircraft fleet of the air force), Erdoğan said that “…air defense systems alone will not be enough. Defense systems are different, the air force is different. Do I have a guarantee that it will continue? Since there will be no such guarantee, maybe then we will have to take very different steps.” He also stated that Turkey had paid $1.4 billion for F-35 combat aircraft but denied delivery. He also reiterated that the US failed to sell Patriot air defense systems on time, which was decisive in the selection of the S-400.
Turkey-US defense structures are breaking up
Shortly after this interview, an anonymous US State Department official spoke to Reuters saying that, “We continue to make clear to Turkey that any significant new Russian arms purchases would risk triggering CAATSA 231 sanctions separate from and in addition to those imposed in December 2020”.
These words of President Erdoğan are extremely important in terms of both content and timing.
In terms of content, it confirms that the defense industry and military cooperation, which constitute the main backbone of Turkey-US relations, has almost completely broken off, despite being partners in the Western defense alliance, NATO.
The importance of his statements in terms of timing stems from the fact that they were made just after he visited the USA on the occasion of the 76th General Assembly of the United Nations and just before he meets with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Sochi scheduled for September 29.
It is useful to summarize the background before moving on to the evaluations of content and timing.
Many assessments and comments have been made by many interested, knowledgeable, irrelevant, and uninformed people in Turkey regarding the purchase, reasons, and impact of the S-400 air defense system from the Russian Federation. Therefore, this article does not have the purpose of conveying -once again- the history of the S-400 purchase. However, reminding the important milestones of the process up to the acquisition of the second S-400 system will make it easier to make predictions about the future.
The before and after of the S-400s
The first candidate for Turkey’s requirement for an air and missile defense system, which came to the agenda in the early 1990s, was naturally the US-made Patriot system. The Patriot was the natural candidate, as there was no other Western-made equivalent air defense system capable of intercepting tactical ballistic missiles and capable of hitting warplanes and other air targets at long range. The Franco-Italian SAMP/T system was to enter service only in the early 2010s.
Both budgetary constraints and the insufficient maturity of ballistic missile interceptor technology (as a matter of fact, during the 1991 Gulf War, Patriot batteries are considered to have a success rate of around 50% against SCUD and derivative missiles fired by Iraq against Israel and Saudi Arabia), delayed the supply of these systems.
Russia, which offered the Antey 2500, which is the predecessor of the S-400, in the tender called LORAMIDS, was excluded from the competition from the very beginning after it put forward an extremely high price tag of approximately $8.4 billion. In September 2013, China’s offer for FD-2000 was selected as the winner and the decision shocked the USA and NATO. China’s offer was around $3.44 billion, and it was followed by the $4.4 billion SAMP/T and $4.6 billion Patriot offers respectively
According to the statements of the Directorate of Defense Industries (SSB), LORAMIDS was a tender to procure an off-the-shelf system to meet the requirements of Turkey until it develops its own indigenous long-range air defense system. Co-development and co-production were not top priorities; local industry contribution was of third priority. However, the contract negotiations with China which were at the end of 2013 were terminated in November 2015 on the grounds of disagreement on technology transfer and co-production. Turkey announced that focus and priority would be given to developing the indigenous system: The LORAMIDS tender was shelved.
Effects of Syria and coup attempt on the S-400 decision
Two important developments took place before this decision of Turkey: At first, from the end of 2014, the United States started cooperating with PYD/YPG, the Syrian branch of the PKK (considered as a terrorist organization both by Turkey and the US) as its main partner in Syria and started to provide intensive weapons and training assistance. Then, as of August 2015, the USA and Germany started to withdraw the Patriot air defense system batteries they deployed to Turkey as part of NATO assistance against the possible air threat from Syria.
The coup attempt that took place on July 15, 2016, and US reluctance to show solidarity with and support to Turkey thereinafter was another blow to bilateral relations. Furthermore, the fact that the perpetrator of the attempt, the Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen has been living in the USA under the auspices of the government agencies, was also influential in the collapse of the already strained relations.
Against the background of such a military-diplomatic environment, in the autumn of 2016, right after the coup attempt Turkey started negotiations with Russia for the purchase of the S-400 system. The contract, signed in April 2017 covered two S-400 systems, one of which is an option. The delivery of the first system took place in July 2019, and the test firing was carried out in October 2020.
In due course, the Trump administration increasingly showed discontent and finally in December 2020 decided to impose sanctions on SSB and its executives under CAATSA. On the other hand, the US also removed Turkey from the F-35 project and canceled the delivery of six F-35A jets produced for the Turkish Air Force.
US sanctions did not deter Turkey
At this point, it should be reminded that Turkey has not yet taken a concrete counter-movement against the CAATSA sanctions and its removal from the F-35 project, except for statements and discourses.
The content of President Erdoğan’s statement is remarkable in terms of both the purchase of the second S-400 system and the maintenance and logistics support of the F-16 aircraft. It is almost certain that the purchase of the second S-400 system will trigger additional CAATSA sanctions, as the US administration has made statements regarding this issue several times.
Turkey received a total of 270 F-16 warplanes, under three separate projects between 1987 and 2012, for which Erdoğan expressed his doubts about the continuation of logistics support. These aircraft were purchased through the US’s foreign military sales (FMS) export mechanism. In the FMS process, the product is purchased by the US government from the contractor and re-sold to the recipient country. The FMS system has several advantages, especially from contract and procurement management and long-term sustainment standpoints. In turn, FMS is a method of procurement that comes with political constraints and conditions. In addition, the US government has very strict after-sales inspection and control mechanisms.
Ankara considers F-16 project risks
Although bilateral relations were strained, under normal circumstances problems in logistics support and sustainment of Turkey’s F-16 fleet would be out of the question since these aircraft were delivered via FMS and is a subject of long-term military-technical cooperation.
However, President Erdoğan’s words reflect that there might a serious problem (or a great risk thereof) in one of the most important and long-term cooperation topics in Turkish-American military relations, such as the F-16. He also states that in such a scenario, Turkey could take counter-steps. What these counter-steps might be is the subject of technical and political analysis. “It is worth reminding that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally briefed Erdoğan on the newly developed Su-57 fighter jet during MAKS air show in Moscow in August 2019. Russian defense executives also occasionally mention a possibility of cooperation on Turkey’s national combat jet program, the MMU“
As for the timing of the statement, it would be sufficient not further from early September. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on September 7 that, “…if we can agree on certain terms and conditions and if the US Congress approves, we might purchase the Patriot system even if it’s more expensive. We have to buy it from somewhere”. Çavuşoğlu also made a similar statement in June by saying, “If the US does not guarantee the Patriot, we can buy air defense systems from our other allies, such as the SAMP/T.”
US and Turkey: do they see each other as partners?
Between these remarks and those of Erdoğan, the only significant event is Erdoğan’s visit to the United States. The fact that there had not been a meeting between President Erdoğan and US President Joe Biden during this visit and that even a pose was not given during the UN General Assembly can be taken as crucial signs. During the UNGA, Biden held meetings with leaders of the UK, Australia, India, France, Japan, South Korea, and Iraq, some of them by video conference or telephone call.
In such an environment, the statements regarding the second S-400 purchase were first given to the foreign press was the American CBS television, right after the US visit.
Since 2014-15, the US has shown in different ways that it does not see Turkey as a partner in its regional policies. Turkey’s purchase of the second S-400 air defense system from Russia is also highly likely to trigger additional CAATSA sanctions by the US. It is possible to read Erdoğan’s statements in his interview as a reaction to not being addressed both individually, diplomatically, and strategically.
On the other hand, it should be noted that Turkish – Russian relations are at a very delicate balance, especially in Syria and Ukraine – Crimea issues. This might impact Erdoğan’s negotiation power against Putin, including the purchase of the second S-400 system.