With the first shipment of the Russian-made S-400 missile system arriving in Turkey on the 12th of July, it becomes obvious that the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has ignored all objections and concerns expressed from its NATO allies to not proceed with the purchase. Turkey buying a highly developed Russian defence missile system signals a potential political shift and a rapidly growing desire from Erdoğan to create a highly independent military power. The purchase has also jeopardized the F-35 program in which Turkey played a major role.
What is the S-400 missile system?
The S-400 is a highly capable, mobile, long-range defence system capable of shooting down everything from ballistic missiles to military stealth aircraft. Compared to the American-made Patriot defence system, the S-400 has a longer range (400 km), it can track and engage a very large number of potential targets in any direction, and it is less expensive. Other advantages are its modular setup and high mobility, meaning it can be set up, fired and moved within a couple of minutes.
Nonetheless, when speaking about the Russian S-400 as part of its A2/AD capabilities, it is important to not overestimate what it is capable of. Russian air defence might appear formidable, which is exactly what Moscow wants its adversaries to think, but it is far from impassable. A series of Russian ambiguous statements and demonstrations concerning its defence capabilities serve as a form of its deterrence strategy. For instance, the missiles mounted on the S-400 have a range of 400 km, but this range is only applicable to large, difficult-to-manoeuvre targets flying at high altitudes, such as NATO’s AWACS aircraft. In terms of fighting against a smaller stealth aircraft, the S-400 radars can detect and track a tactical fighter-sized stealth aircraft, however, they do not have the proper accuracy to deliver a missile near the target. Even though the Russian defence capabilities have expeditiously improved in the last couple of years, they do not pose such a challenge to NATO as Russia hopes and portrays.
The purchase of the S-400 comes at a time when the European security environment is undergoing a structural change, particularly after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Consequently, NATO’s primary focus was put on the standardization of weapons used by NATO countries to better conduct operations and obtain a high-level of interoperability. However, the S-400 is incompatible with the set-out NATO standards and could not only jeopardize the F-35 project, but it could also pose a significant risk for any other NATO military aircraft. In the event of a conflict, sharing vital information would no longer be possible.
“Even though the Russian defence capabilities have expeditiously improved in the last couple of years, they do not pose such a challenge to NATO as Russia hopes and portrays.”
Implications for the F-35 project
The bigger reason for the uncertainty, however, is the jeopardy of the high-tech F-35 stealth fighter jet partnership between the United States, Turkey, and seven other countries. By acquiring the Russian S-400, this system could then observe and allow comparisons and techniques to be discovered to defeat it. Technically, the F-35 and the S-400 are mutually exclusive defence acquisitions. Data such as characteristics of the F-35’s or the ESM signatures could then circle back to Russia through Russian intelligence services. This risk becomes real when we consider that Turkey will receive five-year technical support, which will give Moscow plenty of opportunities to infiltrate intelligence agents between the operators and collect sensitive data.
Moreover, if NATO was to integrate a system such as the S-400 into the NATO Air Defence Ground Environment (NADGE), this would allow the Russian operators to target any NATO aircraft, including the F-35, and collect sensitive data about their characteristics and performance. The data sharing across the NADGE defence systems would become extremely difficult. For instance, the so-called friend-and-foe identification system requires a huge amount of data sharing to distinguish between a NATO aircraft and an adversary one. The S-400 would make this sharing impossible and NATO allies are vividly aware of that.
Why the Russian S-400?
Turkey has repeatedly declared that the S-400 is a strategic defence requirement, acquired mainly to secure its southern borders with Iraq and Syria. Turkey defends itself by claiming that in the time when the deal was signed with Russia, it had no considerable alternatives offered by its NATO allies. When the deal came close to realization, the U.S. concurrently offered its Patriot missile system. However, by that time, Turkey was strongly convinced that the acquirement of the S-400 was in its best interest. Additionally, on a couple of previous occasions, Turkey has expressed its deep concerns about the U.S. allegedly trying to exert as much control as possible over the weapon systems it sells. These allegations then fuel conspiracies about this issue and that the so-called ‘kill switches’ might be even encoded into the hardware of weapon systems.
The U.S. decided to begin the process of excluding Turkey from the F-35 program due to its purchase of the S-400. Since Turkey had significant industrial participation in this program, it was announced that it might take up until March 2020 to fully withdraw Turkey from the supply chain. Potentially, the exclusion might not be the only consequence of Turkey’s purchase of the S-400. Based on Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), Turkey might be facing sanctions. This development would come at an unpleasant time for Erdoğan. The Turkish economy is profoundly weak with joblessness and inflation being critically high, as well as with minimal economic growth.
Erdoğan has expressed disbelief that Washington will impose any sanctions since the two countries are “strategic allies” and it would damage their strong partnership. Trump is on board with Congress on the exclusion of Turkey outside the F-35 project, however, he remains reluctant in terms of imposing sanctions against it.
The purchase of the S-400 by Turkey created an unprecedented situation. A NATO member purchasing a Russian-made missile system threatens the Alliance’s cohesion and interoperability in terms of the NADGE. However, are sanctions the correct response? In this complex situation, sanctions might turn out to be counterproductive. Even though they would unavoidably damage the Turkish defence sector ties with American but also European entities, they could also lead to Russia becoming a crucial arms supplier for Turkey. This would only multiply the rift between Turkey and NATO and would potentially do more harm than good. The likelihood of this manifestation was demonstrated by Russia when it offered its military aircraft programs, namely the SU-35 and perhaps even the Stealth ESU-57, right after the U.S. had announced the exclusion of Turkey from the F-35 program.
The Turkish purchase of the Russian S-400 is not the first and certainly not the last development to negatively impact the NATO-Turkey relationship. How should NATO react, and what steps does it need to take in order to prevent this from happening? It will be an interesting topic to follow over the upcoming years.