Turkey’s deal to purchase two batteries of the Russian S-400 air defence missile system – estimated to be worth $2.5bn – has followed months of rumours surrounding the purchase and its resulting controversies.
Until November 2015, reports suggested Turkey was showing an interest in purchasing Chinese air and missile defence system FD-2000. Then came reports that Turkey had cancelled this $3.4bn deal in favour of developing a long range missile defence system. While seemingly a respite for Nato countries, who at the time raised multiple objections to a Chinese partnership, the subsequent pivot towards Russia has proved an equally concerning move.
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The S-400 can detect track and destroying aircraft, drones, and cruise and ballistic missiles, undeniably enhancing Turkey’s the air defence capability in a significant way. The system has advanced radar system and software, while its interceptor missile can counter exa-atmospheric targets.
Nato’s objections to the potential Chinese option argued that Beijing would be able to gather information on the Alliance’s missile defence capability as Turkey’s system would be integrated with those of other regional states. Such a back-end insight could enable Chinese forces or others to develop effective counter measures against the wider defence shield. Even more concerning was the initial selection of China Precision Machinery Import and Export, a company once sanctioned by the US for selling missile-related technologies to Iran in 2013.
Turkey, one of the worst effected by the Syrian crisis, has long claimed a need for sophisticated missile defence system to protect its territory. Nato members including Germany, the US, the Netherlands and Spain have stationed Patriot air and missile defence systems in Turkey as a temporary measure. At present, only Spain and Italy have allowed their Patriots to remain in Turkey – a situation that has left Ankara feeling upset and alienated.
The S-400 is already finding a wide range of potential customers on the market. For instance, India is said to be preparing to acquire the system to strengthen its air defence system to provide a reliable counter to Pakistan’s air power. According to reports, China and Iran are also considering a purchase, with the latter hoping to complement its existing S-300 batteries. The burgeoning demand for this system has been helped by its apparent success rate during Russian military operations in Syria, where it has been used able to establish ‘exclusion zones’.
In May 2017, the Director General of Russia’s state-owned Rosoboronexpert confirmed that a contract was ready with Turkey but waiting to be signed while “technical issues remain”. Ankara was then said to be purchasing the system with a loan provided by Russia. Representatives at the Federal Service of Military Technical Cooperation (FSMTC) in Russia, responsible for delivering S-400 orders, were openly hoping for a “positive outcome” of a Turkish deal.
After the attempted coup in Turkey, and with relations improving markedly between Turkey and Russia, this latest move has not come as a surprise to analysts. Joint production of the defence system has also been agreed, involving specific criteria that Turkey is adamant it will not compromise on.
Beyond the S-400, Turkey is currently undergoing a massive military modernisation process, spending $5bn on new weapons and upgrades. Russia, while having reduced its military expenditure, continues to be the world’s second largest arms and weapons supplier with the Middle East proving one of its most profitable markets.
According to Nato’s projections, if Turkey’s defence budget continues to grow, the majority of its spending will enable it to modernise its military into a significant world power, employing an arsenal that may now consist of more Russian technology than that of European or American origin. In fact, the latest S-400 missile deal may result in the US cancelling the F-35 fighter jet sale to Turkey – a scenario that could open another lucrative market option for Moscow.
Defence analysts will be watching these developments closely but many believe the key game-changing decision has already been made.