U.S. Trying to Sell Turkey Patriot Missiles to End Spat Over Russian S-400 Purchase

The Turkish missile system order has caused a chill in relations between the two countries, but an alternative arms deal might not fix things.

byJoseph Trevithick|
Turkey photo


The U.S. government is in talks with their Turkish counterparts over a potential sale of Patriot surface-to-air missile systems. Such a deal could finally create a path to ending an increasingly tense political spat between the two countries largely centered around Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system, which the United States and other NATO allies fear could pose a security risk if the Turks operate it alongside the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Tina Kaidanow, Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, disclosed that the talks were in progress at the biennial Farnborough Airshow in the United Kingdom on July 16, 2018. Kaidanow is heading up the U.S. delegation at the event with broad instructions from President Donald Trump and his administration to promote U.S. arms sales abroad.

“[We’re] trying to give the Turks an understanding of what we can do with respect to Patriot,” told reporters, according to Reuters. “Turkey has had an interest in Patriot, so we’ve been working for a while how we can make that work.”

Turkey has been interested in acquiring a new, long-range surface-to-air missile system with some level of ballistic missile defense capability since at least 2007, when it kicked off the Turkish Long-Range Air and Missile Defense Systems (T-LORAMIDS) program. In 2009, the State Department approved the possible sale of 13 complete Patriot batteries, along with more than 70 Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missiles, nearly 200 MIM-104E Guidance Enhanced Missile-Theater Ballistic Missile (GEM-T) missiles, and various other associated equipment. The entire package was valued at nearly $8 billion.

A German Patriot missile launcher in Turkey in 2014., Bernd von Jutrczenka/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP Images

In 2013, Turkey selecting the Chinese FD-2000 surface-to-air missile system as the winner of the T-LORAMIDS program, but canceled the contract before it took delivery of any of the weapons two years later amid U.S. government pressure. Turkish authorities rejected Patriot in the end reportedly because manufacturer Raytheon was unwilling to meet its requirements for technology transfer and industrial cooperation.

Then, in July 2017, Turkish authorities confirmed the country would be buying Russian S-400s after extended negotiations with the manufacturer, Almaz-Antei. The State Department is likely looking to see if they can update the 2009 offer in an attempt to offer an alternative to the deal with the Kremlin.

Whatever the proposed package includes, the U.S. government is eager to find a way to get Turkey to abandon the S-400, which has caused a major political impasse between the two countries and has contributed to a serious chill in their relationship. Most recently, in June 2018, the U.S. Senate voted to try and block the transfer of any F-35A Joint Strike Fighters to the Turkish Air Force until the matter is resolved.

The major issue is that, if the Turkish military acquires the S-400 and integrates it into its larger defense networks with the help of Russian contractors, this arrangement might give the Kremlin a means of acquiring sensitive information about the stealthy Joint Strike Fighter and its capabilities. In addition, NATO members have voiced concerns that in a crisis the Russian-made system will not be able to work directly with other air and missile defense systems across the alliance, potentially creating a dangerous disconnect in the transfer of information or the coordination of defenses at a critical moment.

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If Turkey were to halt the S-400 deal and acquire Patriots, it would immediately eliminate these potential problems. It would also fulfill the Turkish military’s legitimate and pressing need for a new air and missile defense system to replace dated Cold War-era weapons and guard against present and emerging threats in the region.

Without its own adequate defenses in place, the Turks have had to request other NATO members bring their own Patriot missiles – the only system within the alliance at present that is able to provide the appropriate capabilities – to defend their territory, in particular from potential ballistic missile attacks, on multiple occasions since 1991. These have proven to be costly and complex arrangements for other allies. At present, Spain has a battery of Patriots in Turkey.

Patriot also remains a popular surface-to-air missile system and Raytheon has seen a boost of sales recently. The marketing has gotten help from the missile’s combat performance in Saudi Arabia against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and their ballistic missiles. It has also seen recent action in Israel against small drones, highlighting its ability to tackle a diverse array of targets. The latest interceptor, the PAC-3 Missile Segment Enhancement (MSE), which Lockheed Martin makes in cooperation with Raytheon, only promises to further expand the weapon system's capabilities.

An infographic showing the improvements found on the PAC-3 MSE interceptor., Lockheed Martin

But getting Turkish authorities to change course and go with Patriot might be easier said than done. For one, even if the State Department can negotiate a good deal for Turkey with Raytheon in terms of price, it’s not clear whether the U.S. government or the manufacturer would be keen to approve any significant industrial cooperation. This is what pushed the country to choose the FD-2000 over Patriot in the abortive T-LORAMIDS program.

In talking to Reuters separately about the U.S.-Turkey spat on the sidelines of Farnborough, Lockheed Martin went so far as to offer its own alternative, the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS). The Maryland-headquartered defense contractor has been developing this system in cooperation with the European missile consortium MBDA.

The MEADS truck-mounted transporter-erector-launcher., Lockheed Martin

That Lockheed Martin and MBDA are pitching MEADS as an open-architecture system could make it particularly attractive in this case. Turkey could purchase the systems, which also uses the PAC-3 MSE missile, and then work with the pair to integrate its own domestically-produced interceptors, radars, and other associated systems in the future.

“Turkey has a fairly well developed industrial infrastructure,” an unnamed Lockheed Marine missile defense executive said, according to Reuters. “They have their own indigenous interceptors that could be integrated, if we can move to something more of an open system.”

Unfortunately, even if the State Department and American or European defense contractors can find a suitable alternative at a good price that meets Turkey’s demands for industrial cooperation, it still might not be enough for either U.S. or Turkish authorities. Though the question of the S-400s is a major issue, the two countries remained locked in a number of other disputes.

These include the U.S. military’s support for certain Kurdish groups in Syria that Turkey considers to be terrorists and the Turkish government’s detention of American evangelical minister Andrew Brunson on charges of attempting to undermine its authority. The aforementioned Senate vote, on a provision that is part of the most recent draft of the proposed annual defense spending bill, which has yet to become law, tries to block the transfer of F-35s over the S-400 question and the matter of Brunson.

Members of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, a predominantly Kurdish group that Turkey says includes members of terrorist organizations., US Army

On top of that, Turkey remains incensed that the United States will not turn over Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, a former political ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who Turkish authorities claim masterminded a 2016 coup attempt. The U.S. government says the Turks have yet to provide sufficient evidence to support these charges, which would be necessary for any extradition proceedings.

In addition, Erdoğan and his increasingly dictatorial administration have made a number of rhetorically charged statements about the S-400 purchase, which could make it difficult to back out of the plan now and still save face politically. That is to say nothing of the legal ramifications of terminating the contract with Almaz-Antei, which has already begun producing the missiles. In addition, the Russian government is covering more than half of the up-front costs of the $2.5 billion order through low-interest loans, which Turkey could still have to pay back if the deal collapses.

"I tried to buy from my allies," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu complained at the NATO summit, according to Defense News. “I wanted to buy from the U.S. for the last 10 years; it didn’t work. I couldn’t buy from NATO allies, so Russia gave me the best proposal. And now I’m buying from Russia."

Turkish media outlets have also reported that the country’s government rejected a proposal from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to accept delivery of the S-400s, but not deploy them, which could make this course of action or a similar arrangement more complicated now. This would have offered an immediate way for Turkey to take delivery of the S-400s, but assuage U.S. and other NATO allies' fears over having the Russian missiles.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, right, shakes hands with Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev., Alexander Astafyev/Sputnik via AP

The Turks, possibly with the help of the Americans, could then have found a way to sell the S-400s to an agreeable third party. This would actually mirror the circumstances by which NATO member Greece came into possession of a number of older Russian-made S-300s, a saga unto itself that you can read about in more detail here.

The United States may be looking for additional concessions it can make to ease the process, too. The U.S. military has already begun putting a plan into place that sees Kurdish groups leave the strategic northern Syrian city of Manbij in deference to Turkish interests and concerns.

At Farnborough, Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kaidanow sounded hopeful that the two countries could find an acceptable middle ground on the missiles. She also made it clear that hoped the negotiations could be a model for other U.S. allies and partners who might otherwise be considering the purchase of Russian-made systems.

"Ultimately, we are concerned that by purchasing these systems from the Russians, it will be supportive of some of the least good behavior that we have seen from them in various places, including in Europe but also elsewhere," Kaidanow said. “That's true of a number of our partners. It's not just ... the Turks.”

Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Tina Kaidanow in 2012 when she was Deputy Ambassador to Afghanistan., US Department of State

The S-400 itself is a major issue beyond just Turkey. Traditional U.S. partner Saudi Arabia and the U.S.-backed government in Iraq are in talks to acquire the weapons. India, increasingly a major American ally in Asia, is also moving ahead with a purchase of the missile systems.

As with Turkey, there are a number of other factors at play in each one of those situations, as well. Still, how the United States does or doesn’t resolve its dispute with Turkey could have an impact in any of those cases or any future political conflicts over arms purchases.  

With Russia set to deliver the first S-400s to Turkey in July 2019, there’s still time for the Turks and the Americans to come to an arrangement, but it remains to be seen whether or not it comes to pass or involves Patriot in the end.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com