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Why Does Turkey Need The Russian S-400?

July 20, 2019

Via Wikimedia Commons.

Nearly a week after footage of S-400 components being unloaded in a Turkish airbase went viral the White House spared a few terse words for its NATO ally. The Statement by the Press Secretary on July 17 made it clear how the “decision to purchase Russian S-400 air defense systems renders its continued involvement with the F-35 impossible.” The reason for this is fears of “a Russian intelligence collection platform that will be used to learn about its [the F-35] advanced capabilities.”

The Press Secretary insisted that the US government has done its best to help Turkey with its “legitimate air defense needs” by offering the Patriot PAC-3 as an alternative. The relationship isn’t falling apart, however, and the Press Secretary’s remarks ended with a hopeful “we will continue to cooperate with Turkey extensively.”

Ankara and Moscow signed an arms deal in mid-2017 for the S-400 Triumf, recognized as the world’s most advanced theater air defense system, and this caused a diplomatic row with the US that has simmered for two years. While it’s true Turkey’s armed forces bought Russian and ex-Warsaw Pact weapons in previous decades, none were of comparable value or as advanced as the S-400. When a battalion of its TELs are prepared their radar coverage extends over a 600 kilometers radius. If at least two S-400 batteries were emplaced to guard Ankara almost the whole land area of Turkey, with the exception of the shared borders with Iraq and Iran, can be monitored.

A full battalion of S-400’s comprise twelve 8×8 TELs each with four long-range missiles. The battalion has its own mobile command post and a set of radars. Moscow has sent S-400 battalions to Crimea and Syria, but their presence in the latter has done little to spare the country from frequent Israeli airstrikes targeting suspected Iranian facilities. The detection range of an S-400 battalion is within a 400 km radius and missile engagements are possible up to 200 km at a maximum altitude reaching 30 km or 30,000 meters. This means even strategic bombers are at extreme risk if they are within an S-400 battalion’s detection coverage. There’s reason to believe the S-400’s effectiveness isn’t limited to aircraft. The sale of entire S-400 battalions to China and India suggest Beijing and Delhi want a protective umbrella over their cities against ballistic and cruise missiles.

It’s worth pointing out at least three of Turkey’s immediate neighbors–Armenia, Iran, and Syria–possess road mobile ballistic missiles. In Armenia’s case, these are the Iskander-E delivered by Russia as part of a loan. Not to be outdone, Turkey’s dependable ally Azerbaijan cobbled an arsenal of short-range missiles thanks to Belarus and Israel. From the stand point of its national security, Turkey has a real justification for establishing layered air defenses in a volatile and war-torn neighborhood. In fact, several years ago it tried to order the HQ-9 from China but was pressured to scuttle the deal.

NATO’s inconsistent policies deserves some blame as well. Since the 1990s many NATO armies saw their air defenses wither from a lack of actual threats and this is even more glaring when it came to Turkey. With the exception of medium-range MIM-23 Hawk SAMs and various MANPADs, the Turkish military has no viable ground-based air defenses other than anti-aircraft guns. Reviving useful comparisons, its neighbors Armenia, Bulgaria (a NATO ally), Greece (another NATO ally), and Iran have S-300 batteries of their own. And Turkey?

But with the US having kicked out Turkey from the multinational F-35 pool as a punitive measure, acrimony is overflowing and speculation of Ankara’s exit from the NATO alliance is commonplace. As a form of petty revenge, Turkey’s state-owned Anadolu Agency went as far as publishing an article slamming the F-35 as a “poster child of ineptitude and inefficiency.”

Of course, the US’ own misgivings have some merit as well. The Turkish S-400’s will no doubt have command posts and radars whose operation requires Russian instructors working with Turkish trainees. If deliveries of combat proven F-35A fighters pull through, these might be stationed in airbases where Russian personnel and intelligence gathering equipment are present. Turkey is counted among the largest recipients of the F-35A, with a hundred due for its air force, and this would have cemented its position as a regional power. Possessing squadrons of F-35A’s and allowing local firms to provide spares and maintenance should help Turkey advance its own twin engine stealth fighter project. But everything is now uncertain aside from the notoriety of Russia’s S-400, which can be sold to any country that can afford it.

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