Did Turkey ever really “need” Russian S-400 missiles?

“Turkey ultimately did not get anything from the S-400 deal that it could not have gotten from the US or Europe.”

The chairman of a prominent Turkish defense corporation has affirmed that Turkey doesn't need Russian-built S-400 air defense missile systems since it has developed indigenous alternatives. While this is not entirely incorrect, Turkey's "need" for S-400s was highly questionable from the get go.

"We are making air defense systems. We don't need S-300s, S-400s," Haluk Gorgun, the chairman of the Turkish missile manufacturer Aselsan, told Turkey's Milliyet newspaper on Mar. 14. "We are eliminating the need for them. This is our duty."

Gorgun was referring to the Siper system Turkey is developing. Turkey first test-fired the Siper in November 2021 and again last December, successfully hitting a target from 62 miles away. Analysts have suggested that this homegrown system could give Turkey a face-saving exit from the S-400 debacle and potentially pave the way for Ankara's readmission into the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.

Gorgun's remark suggests that Turkey's procurement of the S-400 was a necessary stopgap solution until it could develop an equivalent system locally. That is certainly not the case.

Since Turkey signaled its intent to procure the Russian system in 2017, the United States repeatedly warned it that this would jeopardize both its membership in the F-35 program and its plans to buy those fifth-generation stealth fighters to upgrade its air force. Turkey pushed ahead regardless.

Shortly after the first shipment of S-400 components in July 2019, Turkey was, predictably, suspended from the F-35 program and banned from buying any of the aircraft. In December 2020, the U.S. also slapped Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) sanctions on Turkey's defense procurement agency for doing business with the Russian defense sector.

Turkey long insisted it had no other choice than turning to Russia, suggesting that the US either wouldn't sell it the MIM-104 Patriot or was unwilling to offer adequate technology transfers.

The first suggestion is entirely false. Turkey long had the option to buy advanced tier 1 US military hardware such as the F-35, the Patriot, and even the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system. Unlike the S-400, the THAAD demonstrated its capability to successfully intercept ballistic missiles when an Emirati THAAD shot down a midrange ballistic missile fired from Yemen over Abu Dhabi in January 2022. That intercept was the first, and to date only, operational use of that advanced system.

Furthermore, in December 2018, the US State Department cleared Turkey to purchase the advanced Patriot PAC-3 instead of the S-400. Turkey pushed ahead and that proposed deal automatically expired after Ankara began taking delivery of the Russian system. In March 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the US had again offered the Patriot if Turkey pledged not to put the S-400 into operation.

The second suggestion regarding technology transfer is also dubious when one considers Russia has not provided Turkey with any notable transfers to date. The Russian deal only included the delivery of 120 missiles and training Turkish personnel on the system. The December 2018 offer, while likely more expensive than the $2.5 billion Russian deal, included 140 interceptor missiles – 80 advanced Patriot MIM-104E Guidance Enhanced (GEM-T) and 60 PAC-3 Missile Segment Enhancement (MSE) – along with personnel training.

In August 2022, there was heavy skepticism after Russia claimed Turkey was seeking a second S-400 batch. For one thing, Ankara was disappointed with how little in the way of any significant technology transfers Russia was actually prepared to offer.

Aside from incurring sanctions, getting Turkey removed from the F-35 program, and severely restricting its options for fifth-generation fighters for years to come, Turkey ultimately did not get anything from the S-400 deal that it could not have gotten from the US or Europe. And, on top of all that, Turkey has not put the S-400 into operational service over three years after the initial delivery, likely to avoid further antagonizing the US or incurring additional sanctions.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar sought to reassure parliament on Nov. 22 that the system was "in place and ready to use" if needed while acknowledging a "transfer time" of an hour.

Whether the Siper can provide Turkey with the multi-layered air defense system it has long sought has yet to be seen. On the other hand, what has been abundantly clear for some time now is that Turkey had other viable options and ultimately did not need to pick the S-400. The Russian system has proven much more trouble for Ankara than it could possibly have been worth.

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