On July 16, President Donald Trump poorly articulated the first of what is expected to be two actions taken in response to Turkey’s purchase and acquisition of the Russian made S-400. In a meandering and error-filled statement, President Trump noted that “because they [Turkey] have a system of missiles made in Russia, they are prohibited from buying over 100 airplanes [F-35].” In a more carefully written press release, the White House cleaned up the President’s language and underscored the removal of Turkey from the F-35 program, “Turkey’s decision to purchase Russian S-400 air defense systems renders its continued involvement with the F-35 impossible. The F-35 cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities.” As a result, Turkey will be removed from the F-35 program, losing access to the world’s first stealth aircraft built for export outside the United States.
The Russian-made S-400 air defense system was designed for multiple purposes, including the detection and tracking of American stealth aircraft, including the F-35. Turkey is a member of the Joint Strike Fighter consortium which means that Ankara has contributed resources for the jet’s development, and was expected to receive 100 F-35A aircraft, and had hinted that it could consider purchasing an additional 20 F-35Bs for operations at sea. As part of this arrangement, Turkish firms produce F-35 components, but will soon be replaced by American or European suppliers, as Washington moves ahead with Ankara’s removal from the program. The second, looming action is the imposition of secondary sanctions outlined in detail in the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). President Trump remains hesitant to enact these sanctions, owing to a mistaken belief that the Obama administration was unwilling to sell the American-made Patriot missile to Ankara. This is manifestly untrue, but is a talking point Trump has embraced, giving way to an ongoing effort to try and talk President Erdogan out of using the S-400 system his government purchased from Russia.
CAATSA is intended to punish Russia for interference in the United States’ electoral process, but also includes penalties for countries or companies that engage in significant transactions with entities linked to the Russian Ministry of Defense and Intelligence Services. The intent is to deter cooperation with Moscow to exact a financial cost for Russian malfeasance. CAATSA was passed after Ankara and Moscow began talks about the S-400, but was in place before the two sides reached a formal and final agreement in December 2017. The sanctions were designed to be “Trump-proof,” which reflects a bipartisan consensus that the American president cannot be trusted to retain a hard-line, anti-Russia policy given the assistance Putin provided to his campaign during the election. For this reason, CAATSA doesn’t have a traditional national security waiver, and are therefore very hard to waive without demonstrating that the targeted entities are making a good faith effort to wean off Russian military equipment. Turkey, of course, is doing just the opposite, deepening its reliance on Moscow despite the threat of sanction.
Ankara remains committed to using its new missile system. Erdogan indicated in a recent speech that the system would be deployed in April 2020, a timeline commensurate with when Turkey is expected to receive the full S-400 regiment it purchased and when Turkish personnel currently in Russia finish their training.
For the United States, the concern about Turkey’s S-400 purchase is twofold. First, and related to the F-35, is that co-locating the S-400 and F-35 would allow for Russia to gain access to data collected from the system’s radars, specifically learning about the frequency of radar returns from the F-35, allowing for the system to detect the jet at greater ranges. This data could be accessed by Russian technicians who remain in Turkey to monitor the system’s end-use, assist with maintenance, or routinely supply spare parts and service contracts. The second concern is that the transaction means a greater Russian presence in a NATO member, giving the West’s most active competitor the means to learn more about the future front-line fighter for a number of NATO’s air forces to better shoot these planes down during a conflict.
For Ankara, the purchase of the S-400 is the culmination of a decades-old quest for long-range air and missile defense. Ringed by unstable neighbors in the Middle East, Turkey borders a region awash in ballistic missiles and regimes that have demonstrated the willingness to use them during combat. There is no doubt that Turkey could benefit from some semblance of missile defense. However, traditionally, Ankara has demanded of Western defense firms co-production and technology transfer arrangements, designed to produce technology in-country to enable the growth of the domestic Turkish defense industry. In talks with the American defense firms Raytheon and Lockheed, as well as Europe’s MBDA, Ankara remains committed to extracting concessions designed to enhance its own indigenous effort to build a domestic air defense system. With Almez-Antey, a Russian state-owned company, Ankara dropped these demands, reaching agreement for the purchase of two regiments off-the-shelf, and have commenced talks towards the production of some components in Turkey. These talks have not yet been finalized and the Russian security services have indicated that they are unwilling to tolerate the sharing of sensitive S-400 technology, but will tolerate the localized production of non-essential components. In talks with the United States and Europe, Ankara had demanded more than token localized production, underscoring how Turkish concessions were made, despite the S-400 being a threat to the F-35.
The Turkish-Russian agreement appears linked to the growing personal ties between Presidents Erdogan and Putin, two authoritarian leaders who chaff at the American presence in the Middle East. For Putin, the emergence of the unipolar world, and unchallenged American military might, is not in Russia’s best interests and should be challenged. For Erdogan, the American role in the Middle East has, in the case of Syria, undermined core Turkish security interests and, more broadly, hinders his effort to transform Turkey into a regional power, capable of acting independent of any great power.
The S-400 purchase, when factoring in the cost of Turkey’s removal from the F-35 program is tremendous. The cost to Turkish manufacturers will run well into the billions, while sanctions will exacerbate problems in Turkey’s already troubled economy. Depending on the severity of the sanctions chosen, Turkey’s defense industry could be crippled, or legacy cooperation with the United States on transport helicopters and the F-16 could be prematurely ended. Trump may have bought some time implementing sanctions, but the fundamental problem set—Turkey’s S-400 purchase and the concurrent congressional mandates—remains. At some point in the future, perhaps by April 2020, talks to try to incentivize Ankara to not ever use the S-400 will collapse.
Of course, predicting the future is difficult and riddled with uncertainty. But, if one assumes that Ankara intends to use the system it chose over the F-35, there will be a series of future challenges that will impact Turkey, along with the United States. Projecting forward, Ankara could face significant challenges with its F-16 fleet, as the F-35 was intended to replace some airframes beginning in the early 2020s. Absent access to the F-35, Ankara could try and hasten development of an indigenous fighter, dubbed TF/X, although it remains dependent on an American engine, which is subject to American export controls because of its use of U.S. origin equipment. Turkey’s talks with the United Kingdom’s Rolls Royce for a TF/X specific engine are stalled, amidst disagreement about technology sharing. In either case, Turkey could face challenges maintaining its current fighter fleet and will face shortages in the future, raising questions about the future of the Turkish Air Force, and whether Ankara would consider purchasing Russian-made fighters. Of course, a Turkish purchase of a Russian jet would make unwinding CAATSA more difficult, creating a catch-22 that cedes certain advantages to Moscow over the long term.
The result of the S-400 saga, for both Washington and Ankara, may run counter to the intent of each countries’ strategy. The threat of sanctions did not deter Turkey’s S-400 purchase, and its implementation may drive Turkey to deepen defense cooperation with Putin. Ankara will also soon have to grapple with reality that Turkey is not as powerful as its leaders think it is. Sanctions will hurt, and the Turkish defense industry will come under considerable strain. Turkey has also lost the F-35, an aircraft it has spent over a 1 billion USD to help develop. Erdogan has also deepened relations with Putin, who enables his worst instincts, but also has gained leverage over Turkey. The result, of course, is that the United States and Turkey will emerge from this crisis comparatively weaker than where they both started, while Russia has gained a new political partner in Erdogan, enriched its defense industry, and may have the inside track to drive the wedge between Turkey and the West ever wider.