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What Is the Reason Behind Turkey's Acquisition of the S-400 Missile System?

The missile deal Turkey signed with Russia incited a diplomatic crisis between the former and the United States. Here is the background of incidents that led to the S-400 deal, emphasizing the reasons as to why Turkey needs its own air defense system.


For a long time, Turkey has been trying to obtain its own air defense system. As a committed member of NATO and the owner of the second largest military force in the alliance, Turkey initially wanted to meet this need from fellow NATO countries. The obvious choice was the U.S.-produced Patriot missile system. Patriot missiles have been operational since 1981 and were sold by the U.S. to a large number of countries including Greece, Poland, Romania, and Spain. They were also sold to non-NATO countries, such as Japan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Taiwan. In Israel’s case, the U.S. not only sold the system itself but also provided the transfer of its technology. Later, a New York Times report claimed that Israel, in turn, sold this technology to China in 1992. Jordan and South Korea also acquired second-hand Patriot systems.

Strangely, the U.S. denied selling Patriot missiles to the NATO member Turkey while certain non-NATO countries could acquire them readily. Consequently, Turkey started to look for other options.

Meanwhile, a new threat appeared for Turkey from its southern borders during the early phases of the Syrian Civil War in 2012. During the same period in which the civil war intensified, the Assad regime was increasingly resorting to aerial attacks against the rebels near the Turkish border. For this reason, Turkey asked NATO for assistance and in accordance with that request, the U.S. and Germany deployed Patriot missiles in order to shield Turkey from potential effects of the Assad regime’s attacks against Syrian rebels.

However, the aforementioned fellow NATO members pulled the missiles when Turkey actually needed them the most. In 2015, the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian military jet which had violated its airspace. The incident triggered a deep crisis between Russia and Turkey, which would last for months. To retaliate, Russia deployed S-400 missiles in Syria, which would go on to lock on Turkish aircrafts several times. This was the exact period, one month after the downing of the Russian jet, when Turkey’s NATO allies Germany and the U.S. pulled the Patriot missiles, which would be highly beneficial for Turkey in protecting its warplanes.

Turkey has been well aware of the necessity of owning an air defense system for a long time. The country initially attempted to purchase Patriot missiles from the U.S. back in 2012. However, the deal could never be finalized. In turn, Turkey started negotiating with China to purchase surface-to-air missile defense systems in 2013. The U.S. objected to the purchase, claiming that the Chinese missiles would be “incompatible” with the NATO system. The U.S. had also complained that the company selling the missiles to Turkey was already sanctioned for allegedly selling missiles to Iran.

Ultimately, Turkey initiated talks with Russia to acquire the S-400 air defense missile system in 2016. The development of the S-400 began in Russia by the mid-1990s and it has been operational since 2007. The S-400 is described as “one of the best air defense systems currently made” by The Economist and is touted to be “among the most advanced air defense systems available" by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), a Sweden-based non-governmental organization dedicated to research into conflict, armaments, arms control and disarmament. A senior researcher with 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 aerial and maritime zones. The S-400 missiles offer protection to a range of 400 km which could cover a region wider than Turkey’s entire territory. Considering the terror threats Turkey currently faces from northern Syria and Iraq, and the developments that emerge in the Eastern Mediterranean regarding the hydrocarbons exploration in offshore Cyprus, the possession of the missile system will be particularly important in strengthening Turkey’s hand in foreign policy. Accordingly, The Bloomberg suggests that Turkey considers deploying some batteries along its southern coast, a move that could potentially provide further protection to the economic rights of Turkey and Turkish Cypriots in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Another reason as to why Turkey chose the S-400s specifically, lies on its objective to further develop its national defense industry. Russia not only offers to sell the S-400 system, but it also provides the transfer of its technology to Turkey as part of the deal. SETA, an Ankara based research institute, emphasizes the transfer of technology was a major precondition for the S-400 deal and suggests that this will have a long-term impact on Turkey’s defense industry and its foreign policy orientation.


Ömer Erkut Bulut