A shining example of the way in which governmental policies can work against each other and can even threaten long-established relationships can be seen in the current escalating disagreement between NATO and member state Turkey. The underlying causes encompass a whole series of disputes and uncertainties: the consequences, unless the issue can be resolved to mutual satisfaction in the relatively near future, could verge on the catastrophic.
On the surface, it appears that the root cause of the spat lies in the Turkish decision to procure the Russian S-400 TRIUMF air defence system to cater for its long-range air and missile defence needs. The first regiment’s worth of launchers and missiles has recently been delivered to Ankara, which has inspired a fresh round of protests and recriminations from NATO – apparently prompted in part, it has to be said, by rather vociferous American comments – that the Russian system is incapable of interfacing with the (purportedly) NATO-wide air defence command and control system.
That much is true. The Russian system will not work in an integrated manner with NATO’s defences. It therefore establishes a potential vulnerability in an operational theatre of vital interest to the Alliance. Worse, in some minds, it raises the spectre of ‘enemy action,’ in that there could be ‘back doors’ engineered into the system that would allow Russia – one of the potential adversaries against whom the system might be called upon to act – to disable or degrade system capabilities in the event of open hostilities.
At another level, though, the dispute has an economic and industrial political aspect. Like many other nations, Turkey at one point had aspirations to join the international club of PATRIOT operators – a club that, with the recent accession of Bahrain to membership – now encompasses 17 sovereign states. PATRIOT would have fulfilled Turkish air defence requirements and would – self-evidently – have been compatible with NATO systems. From the American side of the equation, there were some concerns over security and there would therefore have been limitations on the exact level of technology transfer that would have been enabled as part of any contract. A rather more powerful reason for failure of the deal, however, appears to have been ‘sticker shock.’ PATRIOT was simply too expensive for Turkey’s resources to cater for.
The S-400 therefore triumphed and recriminations continue to fly back and forth between Ankara, Brussels and Washington. Turkey’s position is that the decision was a national one and is basically none of anybody else’s business. Washington’s position is that buying Russian equipment is wrong headed on a number of different levels. Brussel’s position is confused as it tries to support an ally while at the same time remonstrating with it over decisions taken in some haste.
Turkey undoubtedly has the right to have made the decision. Washington’s reaction – to threaten ejecting Turkey from the F-35 programme – is seen by some to be something of a knee-jerk reaction, verging on overkill. However, it is not a reaction without a degree of legitimacy. Fears that a rapprochement with Russia, occasioned and begun with the TRIUMF sale, might lead to more intimate sharing of technologies – and thus risk compromising some of the fundamental low observability and multi-domain operational capabilities of the LIGHTNING II – are genuine, and need to be addressed. Outright expulsion from the programme, in which Turkey has been an avid participant almost from Day One, seems to be at least a little harsh, though.
The difficulty for defence planners is in how to escalate or de-escalate aspects of policy, moving up and down a ‘cause and effect ladder’ as circumstances dictate. Would F-35 technologies ‘leak?’ There is no conclusive evidence to prove the case one way or another, though protagonists of the ‘better safe than sorry’ argument point to the fact that the Turkish TF-X combat aircraft development, a mock-up of which was unveiled at the Paris Air Show in June, shows signs of incorporating lessons learned by Turkish industry from their involvement in the F-35 programme.
NOTE: For an expanded version of this editorial comment, please see the print issue of Military Technology 9/2019, available at DSEI in September.