The United State’s threatened sanctions on Turkey and its previous exclusion from the F-35 program are rooted in undeclared motives, and the inability to admit that the Patriot missile system is not what it’s claimed to be.
The United States has announced sanctions on Turkey’s top defence procurement and military-industrial arm years after the country’s decision to procure the Russian-made S-400 air defence system.
A statement from the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed that measures were being implemented under section 231 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA.
What's at stake?
Turkey's decision to pursue the Russian S-400 missile systems has been controversial since it was first announced.
In spite of US appeals for Turkey not to procure the S-400, Turkey argued that the US did not offer an alternative missile defence system.
Meanwhile, NATO allies also raised concerns about data security given that Turkey’s Defence Industries Undersecretariat planned to link the F-35 system to the Turkish Air Force network (HvBS).
This would be necessary to actualise the full potential of the stealth fighter which operates in tandem with information and battlespace awareness networks that guide its cutting-edge software.
Initially, US concerns were that having the S400 linked to HvBS would pose a major operational security risk, possibly allowing data collected by the F-35 to end up being shared with Russia, which could compromise the fighter's operational effectiveness or its stealth signature.
But the Turkish government has rejected such claims, stating that the F-35 and NATO-integrated defence network would run on a separate network from the Russian S-400.
The F-35's makers have previously boasted that its revolutionary technology ensures a radar signature the size of a golf ball, ensuring stealth on critical missions, years ahead of other stealth fighters used worldwide.
Other concerns are that any F-35's operations in Turkey may be detected by its own S-400 radar capability, and that data could be used by Russia to improve detection and targeting of the F-35 stealth fighter.
In a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, U.S. Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, European Command commander and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, argued against the sale of the F-35 to Turkey if it acquired the S-400. Turkey nonetheless went ahead and inked a deal to acquire the S-400 missile system in September 2017, going on to make an advance payment for its delivery, citing its national security interests and defense requirements.
Turkey, which has previously attempted to procure the US Patriot missile system to meet its domestic defence needs, was denied multiple times before opting for the S-400. In light of a congressional report underlining weaknesses in US Patriot missile’s effectiveness across decades of its use, the S-400 was found to better meet Turkey’s security concerns.
In spite of its flagship missile platform, the US Army Futures Command announced its intention to procure the Israeli Iron Dome Weapons systems on February 6, 2019, “to fill its short-term need for an interim Indirect Fire Protection Capability (IFPC)." This flies in the face of the fact that the US already has a highly-acclaimed missile defence platform for its forces.
More recently, Saudi Arabia, a dedicated US ally and procurer of the Patriot battery, put them to the test and found them severely wanting with several system failures.
In repeated missile strikes from Houthi rebels using unsophisticated ballistic missiles, the Patriot missile defences failed time and time again, and often spectacularly.
Despite Saudi Arabia claiming success in shooting down Houthi missiles, it nonetheless approached Russia about obtaining the S-400 missile defence platform after repeat failures on the Patriot front.
The S-400 is only as good as its missiles, featuring better performance as newer missile designs replace older variants, effectively increasing its range and accuracy. Currently reaching ranges of up to 400km away, the S-400 can fire multiple interceptors at once, for now. In sharp contrast, the Patriot can only fire one interceptor missile at a time with a range of 96km.
The S-400 also features the 9M96E2 hypersonic missile, bringing Turkey forward decades in defence technology with its acquisition. The missile can fly at Mach 15 or five kilometres per second, hitting targets as low as five metres above ground, while manoeuvring at blistering speeds of 20 Gs. To put that into perspective, elite pilots can handle a maximum of 9 Gs for a few seconds, and even then with the help of special equipment.
Turkey’s security concerns were exacerbated following US withdrawal of the few remaining Patriot missile platforms stationed along the Turkish-Syrian border in 2015, and later from Turkey’s Incirlik air base, leaving gaping holes in Turkey’s missile defence coverage.
For Turkish strategists and policy planners, the need to ensure adequate, effective offensive and defensive missile capabilities is a key priority in light of Turkey's turbulent geopolitical neighbourhood. More critically, the US patriot missile functions primarily as a defensive platform, whereas the S400 system outperforms the Patriot battery both defensively and offensively.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to eliminate external dependency on foreign defence technology by 2023. In line with this, the Turkish S-400 deal includes a technology transfer clause. On the other hand, it took the US nearly 17 months to reconsider selling the Patriot missile system to Turkey, and even then with no technology transfer clause included.
Cat and Mouse
The first choice of Turkish authorities has always been to procure US Patriot missile systems, but American defence contractor Raytheon’s proposal since the bidding process for Turkish long-range air and missile defence systems (T-LORAMIDS) did not meet expectations of Turkish policymakers in terms of price, delivery schedule, technology transfer and joint production opportunities.
Ankara’s best alternative during the last tender process in 2013 was the Chinese bid, which would have led to the co-production of the FD-2000 missile defence system. Turkey would later cancel this deal due to China’s reluctance for a technology transfer that could grant Turkey’s defence industry with operational and technical knowledge of the system: a key priority for Turkey, aiming to achieve self-sufficiency in the defense sector in the short-term.
Blocked sales of the Patriot was perceived as a let-down by Turkey, especially following the previous US withdrawal of its Patriot batteries from Turkey on multiple occasions. This sentiment was heightened after 127 rocket, artillery and mortar attacks originating from Syria killed seven Turkish citizens, and injured 125 others in August 2018.
Dylan White, NATO press officer, responded to TRT World on the NATO position towards the S-400 sale. He reaffirmed NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg's position that member states have the sovereign right to make decisions regarding their military purchases and clarified that Turkey, a key NATO ally, would not be ostracised for seeking solutions for its national defence.
Hassan Imran, an independent analyst speaking to TRT World, notes that the US stance risks also alienating newer NATO partners such as the Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia, who all employ a range of Russian weapon systems without facing challenges of interoperability or warnings of operational security. He says, “the current political climate only risks estranging newer NATO members and further undermining the alliance.”
Another NATO member state, Greece, who joined the Trans-Atlantic community at the same time with Turkey is currently in possession of both Russian made long-range air defence S-300 system and US-made medium to long-range air defence MIM-104 Patriot missile systems.
On August 13 2018, US President Donald Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) into law, including legislation calling for a delay in 100 ordered F-35 fighter jets to Turkey. This would lead to a chain reaction that eventually saw Turkey removed from the F-35 joint fighter program.
Turkey itself is also home to the second-largest land-based army in NATO after the US. With a hefty $100 million price-tag on the planes, the fighter jet’s production was only possible through shared funding and development by over 35 nations, including Turkey. The program is expected to cost $406.5 billion for acquisition and manufacturing, and an additional $1.1 trillion for operations and maintenance throughout its lifetime.
Turkey’s procurement of the S-400 would only become the focus of the US narrative much later. Instead, initial punitive measures against Turkey were part of an arm-twisting tactic to free American Pastor Andrew Brunson, who was put under house arrest while awaiting trial on espionage and terrorism-related charges in Izmir province. Pastor Brunson has since been released.
Experts argue that the United State’s move against Turkey catered to the significant US evangelical voter base ahead of 2020 US elections. The national spotlight on Pastor Brunson came nearly a year and a half after he was arrested and charged with espionage and terrorism.
“[The US] Congress and the administration are very sensitive towards their evangelical electoral base,” Brookings analyst Kemal Kirisci says.
This was consistent with key appointments of evangelicals by President Trump, notably US Vice President Mike Pence, former CIA director and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, as well as Sam Brownback, the US ambassador for international religious freedom.
"In every church in the country, people know the name Andrew Brunson," says Johnnie Moore, a member of the Evangelical Advisory Council who advises Mr Trump.
"The Brunson case was a call for evangelicals within the Republican base because you have a Christian pastor in a Muslim-majority country," says Amanda Sloat, senior fellow of the Brookings Institution. "It seems that's something Pence has been promoting right from the start." The evangelical voter base has been crucial to Republican victories in the past.
Senators Thom Tillis and Jeanne Shaheen, co-sponsors of the first F-35 delay while the NDAA annual budget was being finalised in May 2018 both answer to a significant Christian evangelical voter demographic.
US Senator Chris Van Hollen, who has actively worked on imposing recent sanctions on Turkey, is also an outspoken activist against the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, and is an active supporter of In Defense of Christians, an organization lobbying for support of ancient Christian minorities, as well as recognition of the Armenian Genocide.
Sen Van Hollen recently co-wrote a letter with Senator James Lankford to the Department of Defense, calling for Turkey to be completely removed from the F-35 supply chain. Sen James Lankford served as a Christian evangelism specialist for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma before assuming office.
While the legal, official position taken by NATO rings true and clear, it remains to be seen if the US will continue to take an aggressive approach with Turkey for not procuring the Patriot missile system, in spite of its established flaws.