13 June 2019

Turkey- between S-400 and Patriot. Will F-35 ever flight over Turkey?

Claudiu Nebunu

Despite Washington’s Administration repeated warnings, Turkey does not seem to give up the S-400 missile defence systems. Although it was not acquired yet, it already seems to eliminate the possibility for the F-35 military multirole aircraft to ever fly over Turkey’s sky. This US-Ankara fight continues, US threatening to impose supplementary sanctions against the Turkish state. And the situation seems to get worse, as US took other coercive measures. Currently, Ankara got caught between Washington and Moscow and, for now, there is no way out. One this is for sure: Turkey will have to choose between the S-400 and Patriot and establish on whose side is going to be: US or Russia.

Image source: Mediafax

Increasing political crescent...

April was a bad month for the Turkish president... things got worse on both internal and foreign businesses...

After votes’ counting, for the 31th of March local elections, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his political group, the Justice and Development Party, lost big cities’ control. Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir’s city halls, as well as other cities’ ones, are not led by opposition’s representatives, gathered around the Republican Party (founded by Ataturk)... Hereof, „sultan’s” popularity is decreasing. However, he still has some chances to control it.

When the Turkish people were voting, the NATO partners were thinking of more “firm” measures against Ankara, as the repeated warnings, on giving up buying Russian armament, did not succeed…

An “annoying” contract…

The F-35 and S-400 history lasts for many years now and it comes from a series of issues which are raising strong tensions in these two states’ relations.

Russia and Turkey signed, in December 2017, an agreement on providing S-400 missile defence system to the Turkish side, worth of $2,5 billion. Pentagon criticized Turkey’s decision on buying Russian missile defence system rather than investing on a developed technology within NATO.

The agreements raised some concerns in the West, as Turkey is a NATO member and the Russian system cannot be incorporated in Alliance’s military architecture.

Ankara also got to an agreement on buying a similar system from a Chinese public company, sanctioned by the US because of selling missiles to Iran, however, it gave up the decision after Washington’s pressures.

In December last year, the State Department approved a possible Patriot system disposal to Turkey, for $3,5 billion. On 3rd of January, a US delegation made an official proposal, which expired at the end of March. However, the offer did not matched Turkey’s major requests: ensuring a credit and a common production.

The Turkish government ignored Washington’s deadline. Without publicly rejecting the American proposal, the Turkish president repeatedly stated that he will not withdraw from the Russian S-400 missile defence system disposal contract, as the first unity was planned to be delivered in July and become operational in October.

Consequently, Washington warned Ankara that it cannot have both systems and if it will take the Russian contract, Turkey may lose the F-35 Lockheed Martin fight multirole aircrafts delivery and get sanctions following the American law CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, adopted in 2017), which, among others, foresees sanctions against Iran, Russia and North Korea.

On the S-400 systems (NATO code SA-21 Growler)

Being designed for helicopters, aircrafts, missiles and even short and medium range of action cruise and ballistic missiles’ interception, the S-400 systems can trace and hit almost all flying objects. It has three operation phases: target’s detection, trajectory’s establishment and commander’s decision to strike. Its great advantage is mobility. It takes only 5 minutes to get it installed, and the preparations can only be made by three militaries.

The system has a radar that detects the target from a 600km distance, at maximum 30 km altitude and can carry different types of missiles: 40N5 missiles with target’s active and autonomous system search- for a 400km range, the 48N6 semi-active missile system, guided by radar on trajectory’s first part- for a 250 km range, 9M96E2 missile, specialized on quick and high steering targets- a 120 km maximum range and 9M96E missile, with a 40 km range.

Currently, the S-400 and Patriot missile defence systems are taking over the missile systems’ market, despite their huge prices. Meanwhile Patriot has, more or less, US’s allies market, S-400 has to earn a market based on its own capabilities. Until now, Turkey and China focused on this system, despite the competition with Russia on the international armament market. Another delivery will, most likely, come from India, wherein the internal acquisition process is almost over.

Also, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Iraq seem to be negotiating on this system’s acquisition.

Another American system, THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), dedicated to high altitude ballistic missile interception, can also compete with S-400 in terms of capabilities, but this one is not subjected to international free sells.

Those interested in finding more about these systems’ capabilities, can take a look here.

S-400 system’s first victim- the F-35 multirole aircraft

And threat started to materialize… At the end of March, a group of senators, both republicans and democrats, passed through the Senate a law project dedicated to F-35 aircrafts’ delivery blockage to Turkey, if it will not give up acquiring Russian S-400 missile defence systems.

The law project was asking the American president to “give a written certification to Congress” that Turkey will not acquire the S-400, so that they can continue with delivering the F-35. The document, states James Lankford, one of its outriders, is sending a clear message to the Turkish president that it cannot have both American and Russian military technologies.

Furthermore, at the beginning of the month, the Pentagon has suspended the terrestrial equipment delivery to Turkey, necessary for F-35’s maintenance and operation. According to anonymous statements, coming from two American officials, for Reuters, Washington has told Ankara’s Administration that it will not receive the equipment associated to F-35’s aircrafts delivery, made by Lockheed Martin.

Pentagon’s decision to freeze the F-35 program for Turkey was not a hastened decision, but it came after many discussions between both sides. The Turkish side even proposed the creation of a common work group to find solution for program’s continuation. However, the State Department did not agree, stating that there were already discussions between US and Turkey on that matter, at the beginning of February, organized within a security and defence work group, and Washington’s position was clear: F-35 and S-400 are incompatible, and it was repeated at every occasion, including during the high-level discussions between both countries’ representatives.

Turkey was planning on acquiring 100 F-35 aircrafts and the Turkish pilots already started training along the Americans. In June 2018, US delivered Turkey the first two F-35 aircrafts, and other two were delivered in the first week of April, however to Luke Air Base, from Arizona, where the Turkish pilots are training.

Also, Pentagon announced that it will reconsider its position if Ankara will be excluded from this military aircraft’s production providers list.

“Serious” consequences…

Pentagon’s spokesperson, Eric Pahon, underlined that Ankara’s choice “will have serious consequences”. Americans’ countermeasures will be many. Besides blocking the F-35 aircrafts’ delivery, the American authorities could also reconsider other contracts, like the Black Hawk helicopters.

The US Office Representative also announced that they are planning on suspending Turkey’s preferential trade system and reconsider Turkey’s eligibility after Ankara established retaliation taxes on the American products, after last year’s dispute.

We must notice US’s vice-president, Mike Pence, “warning” (maybe the harshest one), made iatn the beginning of the month (3rd of April, Wednesday):” Washington will not stay idly” and let Ankara buy armament from its enemy. “Turkey must choose. Does it want to remain a critical partner in the most successful military alliance in history or does it want to risk the security of that partnership by making such reckless decisions that undermine our alliance?” stated M. Pence in Washington.

Previously, the Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister, Mevlut Cavusogly, was saying that Ankara will not give up on buying the S-400 missile defence system, made by Russia. The contract with Moscow is already “signed”, was stating the Turkish official.

It seems that there is no way out…

Despite Washington’s warnings and measures, Ankara did not announce, not even once, that it may change its decision on acquiring the S-400, because it does not want to compromise its possible agreement with Russia over Syria. Furthermore, in April’s second week, the Turkish president visited Moscow and one of he and president Putin’s discussion’s topic was the S-400 system’s procurement contract. In a press conference held after the meeting (Monday, 8th of April), Erdogan stated that Turkey will not give up the S-400 Russian system: “It is our sovereign right. No one can ask us to give it up. We have already established a roadmap for S-400, we have made the first steps”, said the Turkish leader.

The commitment was confirmed by the Russian president, who underlined that the S-400 ground-to-air missile defence system delivery to Turkey is a priority.

A week later (15th of April), Turkey’s Finance Minister, Berat Albayrak,  went to Washington, where he met the US president, Donald Trump, and discussed about Turkey’s decision to acquire the S-400 Russian missile defence system. According to the Turkish official “it was reasonable, and ended with a positive agreement on Turkey’s necessity to acquire the S-400”, however, no other details were revealed.

On 24th of April, the Russian national armament export society, Rosoboronexport, quoted by Interfax, announced that the S-400 Russian missile defence systems’ delivery to Turkey will start in July.

Albayrak- Erdogan’s son-in-law- met with his Russian homologue, US’s Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, and Jared Kushner, White House’s counsellor, American president’s son-in-law, and discussed including about bilateral trade’s increase (…?) from $20 billion to $75. Did they make a “deal”?

Turkey- caught between US and Russia

Except for Washington reconsidering its decision on not allowing the F-35 aircraft cohabitation with the S-400 system (hardly to happen given American authorities’ approach), Turkey may lose this new aircraft’s procurement if it continues the contract with Russia.

Most likely, sending the pilots home will be the measure that will get Turkey completely out of the F-35 program. For now, the Americans are moving slowly…

As for the production, getting Turkey out of the program would postpone the deliveries with 45 to 90 days, as Turkey is responsible for the 6-7% of components’ production.

If that will happen, Turkey will have few options: 57 Suhoi from Russia, an aircraft that it is still far from the complete operationalization and whose procurement would weaken even more the relations with US and NATO, the Chinese version and the Turkish development program of a V-a aircraft, the last two being not so plausible due to existent major obstacles.

Hence, Turkey will only have to take pot luck, which is the F-16, if the Americans will ever give them the replacement parts.

This is a bad news for the Turkish state’s economy, as Turkey’s Central Bank spent, in March 2019, one third of the monetary reserves, trying to support the Turkish lira which was continuously decreasing, and the monetary reserves reached a new dangerous minimum ($24,7 billion), relative to an economy whose GDP for 2018 is $1.240 billion. The decision would bite into the Turkish industry a lot, affecting 17% of Turkey’s exports to US.

Also, after Turkey’s defence industry has increased for a decade, now, it is risking on becoming the S-400 system’s victim. The US could block Turkey’s military products export, including twin- engine fight helicopter T129, built by TAI (Turkish Aircraft Industries), under the Italian-British company’s licenses, AgustaWestland. Last year, Turkey signed a $1, 5 billion contract with Pakistan for the procurement of 30 T129 helicopters. However, in order to actually acquire them, Turkey needs US export licenses. And, in December last year, the Filipino government also chose the T129 fight helicopter, thinking on buying other eight helicopters from Ankara.

Meanwhile the bilateral tensions are focusing on the S-400, other unsolved litigations are still damaging both parts’ trust. Besides the political disputes over Middle East, like the Syria strategy and the sanctions imposed to Iran, there is Venezuela: Washington supports opposition’s leader, Juan Guaido, meanwhile Ankara is on Nicolas Maduro’s side.

On the other hand, giving up the contract it also a bad idea. The bilateral relations between Russia and Turkey have improved, after the crisis provoked by the Russian aircraft’s crash, in Turkey 2015, having huge consequences on a political, diplomatic, military and economic plan. Leaders’ tied relations, Erdogan and Putin, their partnerships that are focused on common interests and the complaints against US’s late policies, were important for their relations, even if there are still some disputes on several topics (Syria, for example).

According to the Federal Custom Service of Russia, the trade exchanges have increased with 37% ($13,3 billion) in the first six months of 2018, and Turkey became Russia’s fourth biggest trade partner.

There are many important projects made in energy by both countries, like the Nuclear Power Plant Akkuyu and the Turkish System gas pipeline. Akkuyu will cover 10% of the total energy consume and will have a key strategic role on ensuring the necessary energy for Turkey’s economy. The Turkish Stream project will ensure the necessary natural gases, and the second phase includes pipeline’s extension towards the Balkan countries.

Instead of conclusions…

The problem with Turkey’s decision to buy the S-400 Russian missile defence system seems to be way more complicated, given that it involves the big powers’ competition on reshaping their influence areas. And Turkey is extremely important for both US and Russia.

However, Ankara’s authorities’ decisions caught the country between two millstones, which are going backwards, and we can barely predict how it will get out of it. The internal and foreign situation complicates things even more.

There is, however, one thing for sure: costs will be huge, and not only for Turkey.

Translated by Andreea Soare