Turkey Is Quite Eager to Buy Russian Anti-Aircraft Missiles
If Ankara wants to cover its airspace, S-400s would do the job
Turkey is presently in the “final stage” of talks to purchase sophisticated long-range S-400 air defense missiles from Russia the country’s defense minister. Work on the S-400 has reached a final point. “But the final stage does not mean ‘let’s sign a deal tomorrow morning,’” Defense Minister Fikri Işik told reporters in April 2017.
He also said that NATO allies haven’t offered Turkey a “financially effective” alternative to these advanced Russian systems, prompting Ankara to look elsewhere.
When Turkey contemplated purchasing Chinese made FD-2000 missiles back in 2013—which are very similar to the S-300s—American and European defense firms which have joint projects with the Turkish military warned Ankara that “our partnership in certain fields will be over” if it bought such missiles.
Another reason the United States and Europe’s NATO members oppose Turkish purchase of non-Western military tech is the difficulty of integrating them into NATO systems. This will also be the case with the S-400 when Turkey finally takes delivery of it, Işik admitted.
Turkey also contemplated building its own air defense system. It recently test fired the domestically-produced Hisar-O missile—a test which Işik oversaw—that, it says, can shoot enemy jets and missiles out of the sky from 15 miles away.
Ankara’s desire to improve its air defenses is logical.
Turkey’s aged medium-range MIM-23 Hawk missile batteries and short-range British Rapiers are certainly far from ideal in this day and age to defend an airspace so large. On the other hand the country does have a formidable air force equipped with American-made short to long-range air-to-air missiles.
Turkish Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets with Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin in March 2017. Kremlin photo
The United States has periodically deployed Patriot missile defenses to Turkey to reassure Ankara of its security. But Turkey would prefer to acquire its own advanced and independently-operated air defense system.
Turkey’s neighbor Iran took delivery of S-300s last year—a much more advanced system than anything in its present arsenal—from Russia a decade after the initial order due to Moscow’s vacillations and pressures from Western economic sanctions.
Ankara no doubt came to appreciate the lethality of the S-400 during the seven-month freeze in its relations with Russia, following its shooting down of a Russian bomber over its border with Syria in November 2015.
Russian S-400s—referred to by NATO as “Growlers”—based at Hmeymim Air Base in Syria’s western Latakia province could, theoretically, shoot down Turkish aircraft operating in their own southeastern airspace. Such a system would bolster any country which possessed them in a substantial number, especially if armed with the longer range missiles, which can hit airborne targets from as far away as 160 miles. Or in the case of the S-400’s latest 40N6 missile, which entered service in 2015, as far as a mind-blowing 250 miles.
This isn’t the only reason it makes sense for Turkey to invest in Russian air defense missiles. For decades now Russia has focused heavily on developing lethal and accurate air-defense missiles—perhaps uniquely so on such a significant scale.
“These are some peculiarities about the Soviet Union’s military,” remarked the late U.S. Rep. Les Aspin, and later Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Defense, in a 1974 interview. “They’ve always had some kind of fixation about air defense.”
“They’ve spent billions of rubles, rubles down the old rat hole, on the Tallinn system when we weren’t even developing a bomber,” he added. “Why, I don’t know.”
The Tallinn system Aspin referred to was “an alignment of silo-based conventionally armed SA-5 anti-aircraft missiles.” The SA-5, also known as the S-200, is the S-300’s older brother. During the 1960s, “over a half-million individuals were reportedly detailed to air defenses to counter the perceived threat from a proposed U.S. B-70 long-range bomber fleet,” noted one retrospective study of the Cold War.
“The Tallinn air-defense system was obsolete by the time it was installed, because the United States had abandoned the B-70 [Valkyrie] program,” the study added.
The S-400. Vitaly V. Kuzmin photo
Instead the Soviets worked on building “more modern missiles, and these were deployed in vast quantities throughout the Soviet Union. Interceptor aircraft were procured in large numbers. No expense was spared in satisfying the strong Soviet interest in defense against attack by aircraft.” (Emphasis ours.)
The Soviets were clearly working to safeguard their capital in case of a war. The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty permitted the United States and the Soviet Union to place anti-ballistic missile systems in defense of one area of their territories. Russia opted to place theirs in defense of Moscow.
When Aspin made his comments the Soviets were designing and developing the more accurate and sophisticated S-300. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union the new Russian Federation continued development, putting the aforementioned S-400 into service in 2007. Such missiles are still put in place to shield Moscow and other key areas in Russia from any possible airborne threats.
Less than a week before Işik announced that the S-400 talks were in their “final stages,” Russian S-300 and S-400s guarding Russian airspace were “put on high alert in the course of drills.”
And in January 2017, the Russian military deployed S-400s to Moscow to defend the capital against “enemy air attacks.” The Kremlin did not specify the “enemy” in question, however this could merely have been saber rattling with the United States in light of tensions between the two powers over Syria. The Russians also said they will deploy S-400s to the Kaliningrad exclave on the Baltic Sea, putting them well in range to shoot down scores of NATO aircraft in a potential conflict.
Possession of such advanced anti-aircraft missiles – the product of decades of research and development, not to mention trial and error—have enabled Moscow to establish so-called anti-access/area denial (A2AD) exclusion zones within and beyond Russia’s vast frontiers. Beyond its own borders it has most notably done so in Syria, with the November 2015 deployment of S-400s following the aforementioned Turkish shoot-down incident, and in the Crimea the following August.
Given missiles’ reach and lethality, it’s no surprise that Ankara wants these weapons to guard its own airspace for the foreseeable future.