Strategic Weapon Systems in the Turkey-Russia-US Triangle


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Dr. Can Kasapoğlu, EDAM Defense Analyst

Sinan Ülgen, EDAM Chairman

Executive Summary

  • Comparing two defensive strategic weapon systems is not easy. One should evaluate key parameters such as geography, air and missile threat landscape, inventory, defense economics, and international military cooperation case-by-case. Thus, a way forward for Ankara’s air and missile defense procurement should depend on a thorough assessment of Turkey’s political-military conditions and security environment.
  • The US’ recent Patriot offer seems more advantageous compared to the previous one. The package, consisting of Patriot GEM-T and Patriot PAC-3 MSE variants, would respond well to Turkey’s critical defense requirements, especially when tackling ballistic missiles threats. Of course, ironing-out the final price, securing lucrative offset options, and negotiating a viable timeline would be important priorities for the Turkish administration.
  • It would be safe to assume that the S-400 would provide superior air defense capabilities than its Western equivalents could offer, although the Russian system is not combat proven yet. Additionally, the high mobility of the S-400 boosts its survivability in the battleground. However, hunting down ballistic missiles is a different story. Ballistic missile defense (BMD) depends on a complex architecture. The S-400 cannot be integrated into Turkey’s existing NATO-compatible command & control networks. This would significantly curb its BMD capacity.
  • Open-source pieces of evidence suggest that Ankara would probably opt for simultaneously procuring the S-400 and the Patriot systems, while finalizing the F-35 deliveries. However, feasibility of such a procurement plan is questionable. The S-400 acquisition is likely to trigger a series of CAATSA sanctions, let alone the Patriot deal falling through from the beginning. Indeed, open-source summary of the Pentagon’s (F-35 / S-400 related issues) report to the Congress suggest that apart from the F-35 deliveries, Turkey’s existing F-16 inventory could also be affected by possible sanctions.
  • EDAM’s previous writings have in-depth assessed the force-multiplayer effects, information superiority edge, and network-centric capabilities of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Considering Turkey’s long-term national defense interests, the F-35-enabled capabilities will clearly dwarf the benefits of operating the S-400s as a standalone air defense asset.
  • In case Turkey were a non-NATO state that prioritized denying its airspace to potential adversaries, the S-400 would definitely overtake the Patriot variants. This is especially true if the country in question had a Soviet / Russian command & control architecture. Yet, none of the abovementioned conditions is relevant to the Turkish case.
  • The Patriot package (thanks to the combination of high-end GEM-T and PAC-3 MSE variants) will be more suitable for a NATO-member state that has a NATO-compatible command & control architecture and Western aircraft (predominantly the F-16 variants at present, along with 100 F-35As and possibly 20 F-35Bs more to come). Besides, Turkey’s immediate doorstep is plagued with ballistic missile proliferation and rogue WMD programs. The nation, with a fast-developing indigenous defense sector, is a Level-3 partner of the F-35 project. The Turkish defense industry even produces high-end SOM-J missiles for the Joint Strike Fighter. Overall, while the S-400 is a true A2/AD asset, its procurement could also harm Turkey’s defense modernization efforts.
  • Even if the Turkish administration decides to backtrack from the S-400 procurement, it should do so without damaging the Turkish-Russian security and diplomatic ties that remain critical for Ankara’s cross-border military operations in Syria. Thus, this report recommends, the S-400 procurement could evolve towards different face-saving options that would provide tactical air defense capabilities for the army formations. In this respect, the Russian defense industry offers various low-to-medium range, mobile air defense solutions. These arms do not fall under the strategic weapon systems category, and should cause much less ‘political debris’ when compared to the S-400.

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