Turkey is preparing for its first live fire test after earlier testing the controversial Russian system’s radar capabilities.
Rabat – Turkey, NATO’s second-largest army, is about to perform a live-fire test of its advanced S-400 defense system. Normally a NATO ally acquiring and testing an advanced piece of military equipment receives little coverage, but the Russian system Turkey intends to use has its Western allies worried.
“We are concerned about the consequences of Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 system,” NATO Chief Jens Stoltenberg said during an October 5 visit to Turkey.
Stoltenberg specifically mentioned the S-400 in his public statement following the meetings in Ankara, again stating the transatlantic alliance’s fierce opposition to the system. “The S-400 cannot be integrated into NATO’s air and missile defence system.”
Stoltenberg urged Turkey to back down from its announced integration of the S-400 system as he promised to find “alternative solutions.” An alternative to the S-400 system is the vastly inferior US Patriot system, which Turkey has tried to purchase for years.
After Turkey announced its plans to purchase the S-400, Washington suddenly changed its mind on the sale of Patriot systems. In March the US offered its own air defense system in a bid to dissuade Turkey from activating its newly acquired Russian kit.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lauded the US proposal as a foreign policy win for his government, saying all the US asked for was a “promise.”
Yet Turkey ignored the US proposal, likely still offended about the US’ initial reluctance to sell an ally its defense systems. Ankara approved the first testing phase for its new military hardware, starting in November 2019, by testing its radar modules.
In June, the US made another last-ditch attempt at stopping Turkey’s implementation of the system. A US senator proposed an amendment to buy the S-400 batteries that Turkey has received from Russia so far. The systems, worth $2.5 billion, would then be stored in Turkey under US supervision. Yet Turkey is proceeding despite the looming threat of US sanctions.
Last week, NATO was again shocked when reports came in that a Turkish S-400 system had locked on a Greek F-16 fighter jet after it returned from multilateral exercises. While Turkey was still testing its system, it again confirmed the powerful capabilities of the Russian air defense system, a key concern at NATO headquarters and at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
The Turkish test became a topic of discussion in the US senate. Both Republican and Democratic senators expressed “grave concern” over the system’s “ability to access sensitive data.” Turkish testing of the S-400 system has raised concerns and its first live-fire exercise planned next week could send a shockwave through the alliance.
Ankara has already demonstrated that its new Russian hardware can detect US-made F-16 and F-4 fighter planes. Actually firing an S-400 guided missile at US fighter jets would present a powerful statement that the Turkish S-400 is capable and that its government is not backing down.
The case of Turkey’s procurement of Russia’s S-400 system is a prime example of the entangled nature of our modern-day geopolitics. Turkey and Russia oppose each other’s ambitions in the Middle East. Both nations have long supported opposing sides in Syria and Libya, and are now also proxy rivals in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Yet Turkey is willing to anger the world’s most powerful country, a country which it has vowed to defend in case of attack as part of its membership of NATO. The system “can lead to US sanctions,” Stoltenberg cautioned. And the threat of sanctions is a real one. President Erdogan of course is fully aware that the US is actively destroying the economies of Iran, Lebanon, Syria, and several socialist countries in its own hemisphere.
All the same, Turkey is willing to risk all of this to purchase weapons from Russia, a country it faces in its own backyard. Washington already expelled Turkey from the multinational Joint Strike Fighter program, to which it contributed heavily and from which it was expecting significant rewards. Even with US nuclear missiles on Turkish soil to deter Russia, Erdogan is willing to take the risk.
Turkey is adamant in realizing its own independent military forces. The refusal of the US to sell the country its patriot systems appears to have left a sense that Turkey is an inferior partner in NATO. The integration of the S-400 will make Turkey the undisputed military power in the region, capable of shooting down hostile airplanes and missiles within a 400 kilometer range of its borders.
The reason NATO and the US oppose Turkey’s ambitions to integrate the S-400 in its military revolves around the West’s most cherished new military hardware: The F-35 stealth fighter jet. The fighter plane has been in development for over a decade costing the US alone nearly half a trillion dollars.
The jet is NATO’s hope of dominating the skies through its clever use of stealth capabilities to avoid detection and perform both air-to-air and air-to-surface missions. The development of the F-35 has been long, expensive, and fraught with issues and now that the jet is in operation it faces seeing its stealth abilities rendered obsolete before its first proper combat deployment.
The reason for this is the advanced capabilities of the S-400 system. The system consists of several modular trucks that carry different radar systems and missile batteries. The system can fire multiple missiles at incoming aircraft and ballistic missiles within a maximum range of 400 kilometers. Furthermore, the system could learn key identifiers of the F-35’s stealth abilities.
The system’s range and radar allows it to “learn” from aircraft flying within its range. If Turkey were to operate the system, the S-400 could identify F-35 planes and learn how to shoot them down. If the S-400 batteries learned how to identify and fight the F-35, the fighter jet would lose its edge and rubbish much of its eye-watering development cost.
Ambitions meet reality
Therefore, the US immediately blocked Turkey from receiving the F-35 jets it ordered. They are now collecting dust in the US, costing the Pentagon $30 million just to store. Yet Turkish F-35s are not the only concern for the US. Due to the S-400’s range, deployment of the system in Syria could mean that Turkey could potentially track Israeli F-35s.
Turkey could gain a significant military edge in the region by integrating the S-400 system in its military. It could redraw the balance of power in the region, limit Israeli aerial dominance, and prevent the use of the F-35 in the region. What lengths the US and NATO will go to to prevent this is yet unclear, as Turkey remains an important ally, especially in a confrontation with Russia.
Matthew Goldman, of the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul, considers the Turkish posturing typical of its current stance. He told Arab News that “Turkey, rather than seeking to douse the flames, is taking the dispute up a notch.” Goldman considers it “in line with Ankara’s increasing tendency to escalate when confronted with a challenge.”
Turkey appears defiant and eager to proceed with S-400 testing. The capabilities of the system align with Erdogan’s international ambitions and apparent dreams of glory. Whether achieving that is worth the cost of alienating its NATO allies and angering the US, the world’s largest military power and arms dealer, remains to be seen.