Turkish President Recep Erdogan says his country will cooperate on the production of Russia's S-500 surface-to-air missile system, a move that is sure to draw new criticism from the United States and its other fellow NATO members. Turkey is already increasingly at risk of getting kicked out of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program over its planned purchase of Russian-made S-400 air defense systems. The S-500 announcement also follows Russia's offer to sell Turkey Su-57 advanced fighter jets if its F-35 deal collapses, yet another example of how the Kremlin has been steadily working to pull Ankara into its orbit in recent years.
Erdogan revealed the plans to work with Russia on producing the S-500 during a televised question and answer session with university students in the city of Istanbul on May 18, 2019. The Turkish President had suggested there was a possibility of Turkey supporting the S-500 program in March 2019. He did not clarify in either case whether this meant that Turkey will also be buying this air defense system itself, but it is hard to see why the country would decide to locally produce components of an advanced weapon system that it doesn't plan to buy for its own use.
"There will be a joint production of the S-500, as well as the S-400," Erdogan said. "There is absolutely no question of taking a step back from the S-400s purchase. That is a done deal."
Turkey incensed the United States and other NATO members when it announced its intention to buy the S-400 in 2017. The U.S. government, among others, says there are unacceptable operational security risks from the Turkish military operating the Russian air defense system and the F-35, a set of issues that you can read about in more detail here and here.
On Mar. 1, 2019, the Pentagon put "deliveries and activities associated with the stand-up of Turkey’s F-35 operational capability" on hold until Turkey abandons the S-400 purchase. Members of Congress are also now looking for ways to permanently block the Turkish government from receiving the jets and cut the country off from its not insubstantial industrial cooperation on the Joint Strike Fighter program.
Erdogan and his government have remained defiant and the Turkish President has also said that the F-35 program cannot exist without Turkish cooperation, something American officials dispute. "Sooner or later, we will receive the F-35s, we will receive its parts, and S-400s will come to our country, god willing," he told the assembled students in Istanbul on May 18, 2019.
But Turkey's continued membership in the F-35 program was already looking uncertain, at best, before the S-500 announcement. This is almost certain to drive further calls in Congress to expel the Turkish government from the Joint Strike Fighter effort. Russia has already sought to take advantage of this upheaval, with Sergey Chemezov, head of Russia's central state-run industrial conglomerate Rostec, publicly offering the Su-57 as a potential alternative during an interview with Turkish state media earlier in May. "We will welcome the Turkish side’s wish to become a partner in the S-500 project," Chemezov had added.
Erdogan did not say what requirement the S-500, which Russia has been developing since 2009 and has described as having an important ballistic missile defense role, might fill for the Turkish armed forces. Turkey does say that it needs to buy the S-400s in part due to the regional threat of ballistic missiles from countries such as Syria. NATO members, including the United States, have deployed Patriot surface-to-air missile systems to Turkey on multiple occasions in the past to provide that country with a theater ballistic missile defense shield.
Russia has also described S-500, which reportedly hit a target 300 miles away in 2018, a world record for any surface-to-air missile system if confirmed, as a compliment to the S-400, rather than a replacement for that system. The road-mobile system, which the Kremlin expects to enter service next year, also offers a more flexible and survivable alternative to fixed silo-based anti-ballistic missiles systems, such as the A-135, in certain circumstances.
With its very long range, the S-500 is also set to expand Russia's anti-access and area-denial umbrellas, especially in certain areas of Europe, such as the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea regions. For Turkey, it could certainly help massively expand the scope and capabilities of the country's aging air defense network, which presently relies heavily on Cold War-era American MIM-23 HAWK and British Rapier systems.
However, the industrial cooperation component of the Russian deals may be more important to Turkey. Ankara has repeatedly rejected counter-offers from the United States to buy versions of the Patriot surface-to-air missile system, reportedly over cost and reticence on the part of the manufacturer Raytheon to allow for local production of any significant portions of the system. In 2013, the Turkish government had also selected the Chinese FD-2000 surface-to-air missile system to provide its armed forces with an organic long-range air and ballistic missile defense capability, before abandoning that plan two years later in the face of significant pressure from the United States. Industrial offsets for Turkey with regards to the S-500, as well as the S-400 and any other potential future cooperative efforts with Russia, could also help mitigate the losses Turkish defense contractors would suffer if the country gets ejected from the F-35 program.
But since 2016, U.S.-Turkish relations have also become increasingly strained since a failed coup attempt to oust Erdogan, in general. Though there is no evidence to support these claims, the Turkish President has at times advanced conspiracy theories that the U.S. military was involved.
Turkey has also been fighting to secure the extradition of Fethullah Gülen over the abortive coup. Gülen is a former political ally of Erdogan who now lives in self-imposed exile in the United States. Turkey has also arrested and imprisoned more than one American national over alleged links to the coup, as well. Turkish and U.S. government authorities have also repeatedly sparred over a number of other issues, including U.S. support to Kurdish factions in Syria that Ankara has declared to be terrorists and Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian policies.
It is unclear if Erdogan believes that announcing a potential S-500 deal could force the U.S. government to acquiesce to any number of demands, but, regardless, this seems unlikely to occur given bipartisan opposition in Congress to the existing S-400 purchase. The S-400 order itself could also prompt sanctions under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The United States can issue waivers, but again, it seems unlikely that it would do so after so heavily criticizing the purchase, to begin with.
With all this in mind, a potential order for the new air defense systems seems almost certain to have the exact opposite effect and could potentially prompt additional calls from American legislators to cut Turkey off from participation in a host of other U.S.-led weapon systems programs and end lucrative deals that allow U.S. forces to operate from various Turkish bases. It already seems increasingly untenable for the United States to continue storing nuclear weapons at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. There have been concerns that S-400 deal might even cause an irrevocable rift between Turkey and NATO, though the alliance continues to stress Ankara's contributions and advocate for a diplomatic solution to its present impasses with the United States.
Erdogan may want to insist that everything will work out in the end, but his opponents in the United States are increasingly making it clear that Turkey's purchases of advanced Russian weapon systems are incompatible with American interests. If members of Congress were willing to look for ways to close the door on Turkish participation on the F-35 over the S-400 order, it's hard to see how those efforts won't redouble in the face of this new S-500 deal.
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