Turkey’s eternal search for an adequate air defense system

A picture shows two Russian S-400 Triumf missile systems at the Russian Hmeymim military base in Latakia province, in the northwest of Syria, on December 16, 2015 (Photo: Paul Gypteau/AFP/Getty Images).

A picture shows two Russian S-400 Triumf missile systems at the Russian Hmeymim military base in Latakia province, in the northwest of Syria, on December 16, 2015 (Photo: Paul Gypteau/AFP/Getty Images).

Following Turkey’s controversial downing of a Russian bomber over its border with Syria last November Russia deployed advanced S-400 air defense missile systems to its main airbase in Syria’s coastal Latakia province. Turkey had reason to fear this deployment, variants of these missiles can take down airborne targets from over 200 miles (approximately 322 km) away.

Relations between Ankara and Moscow have thawed since that tense time, despite this the missiles remain in place in Syria. Turkey’s neighbour Iran is scheduled to receive four S-300PMU-2 Favourite systems – the S-400’s older brother – by the end of the year (according to the SIPRI Arms Transfers Database). All the while Turkey remains with a very basic air defense system and no long-range surface-to-air missiles. Instead the country remains reliant on anti-aircraft guns like the M42A1 Duster (262 units according to the Military Balance 2016), Oerlikon 20 mm (439 units), Oerlikon GDF-001/-002/-003 35 mm (120 units) and Bofors 40 mm (L/60 and L/70; 843 units). With the exception of MANPAD’s the closest thing Turkey has to a formidable missile defense system are its medium-range American-made MIM-23 Hawks, short-ranged British-made Rapiers and other quite aged systems.

While these weapons are certainly better than nothing Turkey is heavily reliant on its air force to combat aerial threats. It has recognized this fact and tried to compensate for it, with no tangible success to date. Even though it has come a long way in the last 25 years, the Turkish military remains an blend of new and old. Its air force is relatively formidable, consisting of about 240 General Dynamic F-16 Fighting Falcons backed up by 108 modified and upgraded F-4 Phantom II and Northrop F-5A/B Freedom Fighters.

On the ground the make-up of Turkey’s armored forces is very informative, even though Ankara possesses over 700 Leopard 1 and Leopard 2 main battle tanks, the backbone of its armored forces remain older M48 and M60 Patton tanks, of which it has almost 2,000.

These forces are considerably competent, however Turkey doubtlessly wants to acquire or develop a substantial long range air defense capability. When spillover from the Syrian conflict began affecting Turkey’s frontier provinces (mortars and rockets, some stray some intentionally aimed at it, landed in Turkish territory) NATO-deployed Patriot missile systems to its southeast to reassure Ankara.

An HQ-9 portable launcher during China's 60th anniversary parade in 2009.

An HQ-9 portable launcher during China’s 60th anniversary parade in 2009.

However Ankara’s inability to deploy such weapons itself doubtlessly irks it. Back in 2013 it entered talks with the China Precision Machinery Import and Export Corporation (CPMIEC) to purchase four FD-2000 (HongQi 9 or HQ-9) long range air defense batteries, each consisting of missiles, launchers, radars, sensors, vehicles, and support systems. It is basically a clone of the S-300. This resulted in the US warning Turkey that it would withhold any funds it had in protest of this deal (the same firm had done business with Iran, Syria and North Korea, three countries the US has long leveled arms embargoes against) and American and European defense firms also warning it that cooperation could be jeopardized “in certain fields” if Turkey continued those negotiations and purchased that equipment. NATO also argued that the air defense system couldn’t be integrated into NATO’s joint systems and was therefore, at a $4 billion price tag, a gigantic waste of money. The Turkish military thought about acquiring the system despite this fact. (See also Ethan Meick, “China’s Potential Air Defense System Sale to Turkey and Implications for the United States“, China Economic and Security Review Commission Staff Report, 18.12.2013).

Our plan is to completely eliminate external dependency on Defense equipment supply with ongoing plans and investments until 2023. — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the International Defence Industry Fair in Istanbul in May 05, 2015, cited in Alexander Murinson, “T-LORAMIDS decision points to Turkey’s strengthening bonds within NATO“, 15.02.2016.

It wasn’t clear how far Turkey would go with these talks, but those strong worded warnings were telling, and were likely noted in Ankara, which remains without the capability to independently deploy such weapons in defense of its airspace.

As Turkey’s patience with the US and Europe seems closer to its limit after the failed coup attempt it might not only seek to further diversify its military (clear steps are already being taken in this direction), but also to actively distance itself from the western powers and the NATO alliance by becoming a more independent and self-reliance power with less constraints and obligations free to pursue whatever policy it believes serves its political, security and strategic interests.

More information
Dr. Mustafa Kibaroglu, chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations and director of the Center for International Security Studies and Strategic Research at MEF University in Istanbul stated that Ankara had neither the intention nor the capacity for a dramatic departure from NATO’s defense infrastructure. All along, Turkish officials had planned to leverage its purchasing power to gain the know-how to develop its own long-range missile system and to expand the indigenous capabilities. According to him, Turkey had been forthright about these intentions. It repeatedly pointed that the Chinese were offering a lower price, favorable technology transfer conditions, and early delivery on the first batch of batteries. (Mustafa Kibaroglu and Selim C. Sazak, “Why Turkey Chose, and Then Rejected, a Chinese Air-Defense Missile“, Defense One, 03.02.2016).

This entry was posted in English, International, Security Policy, Technology, Turkey.

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