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Why is Turkey acquiring S-400 missile system?

The missile deal between Turkey and Russia incited a diplomatic crisis between Turkey and the US. Here is the background of the incidents that led to the S-400 deal and why Turkey needs its own air defense system


For years, Turkey has been trying to obtain its own air defense system. As a committed member of NATO and the second largest military force in the alliance, Turkey firstly wanted to provide this need from NATO countries. The choice was the US-produced Patriot missile system. Patriot missiles are in service since 1981 and were sold by the US to many countries such as Greece, Poland, Romania and Spain. They were also sold to non-NATO countries including Japan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Taiwan. In Israel’s case, the US did not only sell the missiles but also provided the transfer of its technology. Later, a New York Times report claimed that Israel sold this technology to China in 1992. Jordan and South Korea also acquired second-hand Patriot system.

Strangely, the US denied Patriot missiles to the NATO member Turkey while smaller countries and the countries outside NATO have had their own missile systems obtained by the US. Therefore, Turkey started to look for other options.

In the meantime, a threat from Turkey’s southern borders has appeared during the early phases of the Syrian Civil War in 2012. During that period when the civil war intensified, the Assad regime started to increasingly resort to aerial attacks against the rebels near the Turkish border. Therefore, Turkey asked for the assistance of NATO and in accordance with that request, the US and Germany deployed patriot missiles in order to protect Turkey from the possible effects of the Assad regime’s attacks against the Syrian rebels.

However, those countries pulled off the missiles when Turkey actually needed them. In 2015, Turkish Air Force shut down a Russian military jet which had violated its airspace. The incident triggered a deep crisis between Russia and Turkey which would continue for months. In retaliation against Turkey, Russia deployed S-400 missiles inside Syria and locked their targets against the Turkish aircrafts several times. This was the exact period, one month after the shooting of the Russian jet, when Turkey’s NATO allies Germany and the US pulled off the Patriot missiles which could increase the safety of Turkish warplanes on air.

Turkey has already been aware of the need of having its own air defense system for years. Turkey wanted to purchase Patriot missiles from the US back in 2012. However, the deal was never finalized. Then, Turkey started the negotiations with China for purchasing surface-to-air missile defense systems in 2013. The US objected to the purchase, claiming that the Chinese missiles would be “incompatible” with the NATO system. The US also invoked that the company selling the missiles to Turkey was sanctioned by the US for the alleged missile sales to Iran.

Finally, Turkey began talks with Russia to acquire S-400 air defense missile system in 2016. S-400 missiles started to be developed by Russia since 1990s and it has been in service since 2007. The S-400 is described as “one of the best air systems currently made” by The Economist and “among the most advanced air defence systems available" by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), a Swedish based non-governmental organization doing research on conflict, armaments, arms control and disarmament. The organization states "[i]ts radars and other sensors, as well as its missiles, cover an extensive area - the radar has a range of at least 600km for surveillance, and its missiles have ranges of up to 400km."

Turkey needs to protect its airspace and maritime zone. S-400 missiles offer to protection 400 km range which could cover Turkey’s entire territory and the wider region. Especially considering the terror threat that Turkey is facing from northern Syria and Iraq, and the latest developments in the Eastern Mediterranean regarding the hydrocarbon search around Cyprus, the possession of the missiles will bolster Turkey’s hand in foreign policy. Accordingly, The Bloomberg suggests that Turkey considers deploying some batteries to its southern coast, a move which would increase the guarantee to protect the economic rights of Turkey and Turkish Cypriots in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Another reason why Turkey chooses specifically S-400s lays behind its objective to develop its national defense industry. Russia offers not only selling the S-400 missiles, but it also offers its transfer of technology to Turkey as part of the deal. SETA, an Ankara based research institute, emphasizes that Turkey put technology transfer as a precondition for the S-400 deal and suggests that it will have long-term impacts on Turkey’s defense industry and foreign policy orientation.


Ömer Erkut Bulut