A fly in the ointment: Turkey’s S-400 problem

Buying weaponry from your long-time adversary is generally an ill-advised decision at best, and a crippling one at worst. However, the Turkish government has shown it thinks different, and this culminated in Russian rockets flying into Turkish skies. On October 17, footage emerged of a missile being launched over the coastal city of Sinop that many experts and defense analysts agreed matched flight signatures and patters of an S-400 launch. Despite several attempts by the government to dodge the issue, its vividly apparent that Turkey is building the southeastern sector of the NATO defense framework with Russian anti-air equipment. This is a clear threat to not only the total defense structure of NATO and the EU but more specifically the air strategy and the planned integration of the new F-35 aircraft system as well as another intelligence corridor Russia can use.

A Russian military cargo plane carrying parts of the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system arrives in Turkey. EPA-EFE//STR
A Brief History of Russian-Turkish Relations

Historically, the two black sea powers have kept a cold relationship. Turkey was firmly in the NATO camp during the Cold War, even allowing the installation of nuclear-capable missile systems from the United States. In more recent events, they’ve stood against the Russian intervention in Syria, even shooting down a Russian Su-24M in 2015. In late 2016, the Russian Ambassador to Turkey was shot during a speech in Ankara.

However, after all this, Turkey apologized and begged for a normalization of relations. The next year, Turkey decided to spend $2.5 billion with the Russians on approximately 8 artillery battalions of S-400 missile systems. So far only 4 batteries, consisting of 36 fire units and 192 surface-to-air missiles, have been delivered to Turkey. The systems were supposed to be ready by 2019 but had yet to be ready until this month.

What is the S-400?

Simply put, the S-400 is an advanced anti-aircraft missile system. However, there’s more to its capabilities. The S-400 tests in Russia have shown enhanced anti-drone, anti-missile, and long-range radar capabilities. Nicknamed by NATO as the SA-21 “Growler”, it was designed and built by the Almaz-Antey family of Russian state-owned companies as an upgrade to their previously used S-300 systems. It’s able to detect enemy targets up to 600 kilometers away and as high up as 185 kilometers, giving the S-400 exceptionally incredible anti-air abilities to any ground unit.

All of this makes it one of the world’s best long-range anti-air missile systems, rivalling that of the United States’ THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) systems. It has the capability to detect, intercept, and destroy virtually any threat within its ranges, and potentially including the new F-35 fighter jet. This is at the center of the growing issue NATO and Turkey find themselves within.

NATO & Turkey

The recent test launch drew the ire of every top NATO official, particularly the United States. Aside from the simple giving of money to an entity that is the polar opposite from the positioning and objectives of NATO, there is the massive issue of a compromise in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program. The program, launched in the mid-1990s as the Joint Advanced Strike Technology (JAST) program, slowly morphed into its more recent phase when Lockheed Martin beat out Boeing for the contract. Now, key NATO members including the United Kingdom, Italy, Canada, and others including Australia have consorted to fund and test the new fighter system. Despite these grand operations, the problem goes deeper. Virtually all of NATO forces are linked together.

From French Aquitaine-class frigates sailing in the Mediterranean to German Panzergrenadier regiments operating in the Black Forest, to any number of the multi-national F-35s being operated in the skies over Europe, they’re all connected. This is done by the subtly famous Link 16. This highly encrypted tactical data link system is a standardized data and communication exchange all NATO elements share. This system is what allows units, such as the aforementioned examples, to share their tactical picture with other NATO units in real-time. To do this, virtually every single piece of NATO military aircraft, ship, ground vehicle, missile defense system, and command and control (C2) unit has to be integrated into its system, both at the software level, but also with hardware.

These hardware nodes are installed into the F-35 to better allow the pilots to integrate and operate with supporting elements on the battlefield. Herein lies the problem. When the S-400 system enters the picture, things get murky. Like adding a drop of oil into a bowl of water, the technology doesn’t match what it’s being added to. In addition, this would allow the S-400 and the F-35 to coexist in the system, and allowing for the potential revealing of sensitive data about the performance of the two. The F-35 is built from the ground up for stealth and designed to evade and destroy such systems. The data gathered from its integration with the S-400 would unravel its secrets and reveal what, if any, capabilities it has against the fighter, not to mention other air assets as well.

A Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system on display during the Kavkaz-2020 military exercises in Ashuluk, Russia. EPA-EFE//MAXIM SHIPENKOV

Much of the stealth data gathered is through extensive trials and compiled only after some long research periods. Similar to a cluster of data points on a graph, stealth data and determinations on performance are made from tracking patterns at close, medium and long-range; high and low altitudes; and from a variety of angles. This is generally how any radar data is gathered. With the S-400 in enemy hands, the only data points would be gathered in few and far between instances, mostly at long ranges and for very short periods of time. Ultimately this would lead to tactically useless data and keep the F-35 as a viable air asset. Turkeys ability to gather all this data would provide the necessary body of knowledge on how to counter the F-35, or what improvements in radar detection technology or munitions would overcome the new fighter’s advantages.

This data could then be open to Russian interception, regardless of whether or not Turkey decides to be implicit in this. Foreign military sales programs are rife with substantiated rumors of hidden technologies such as kill switches embedded in the coding of the software on a given piece of military hardware. For example, if the United Kingdom wanted to sell a squadron of advanced attack helicopters to a country that had questionable military allegiances or a shadowy dictator at its helm, they could encode the vehicles to be disabled remotely if used inappropriately. It wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility for Russia to hide lines of code in its technology to later be used to transfer stealth and performance data about F-35 and S-400 cohabitation.

To the untrained eye, the S-400 is a “missile-thrower”, simply setting up, aiming, and firing. However, like most modern missile systems, there is a massive network built into this technology that allows them to function with such a high level of operability. A Turkish network spanning hundreds of these nodes would allow the opportunity of a vulnerability within this network to be exploited and the data sent back to Russia.

Additionally, any similar technologically savvy, potentially non-state, actor with the know-how could infiltrate this and extract the data, and thus turn that over to their highest bidder. With Incirlik Air Base nearby and the stationing of several United States Air Force F-35s, this would complicate things for NATO beyond any simple fix.

Turkish Consequences

Turkey sees things differently. While many of the defense heads have been silent on the issue, many observable issues have arisen. In a statement, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in 2019 that, “We suggested purchasing the Patriot from the US, but the United States failed to offer us any suitable terms. So the S-400 deal is being carried out,” referring to the United States MIM-104 Patriot Surface-to-Air missile system. Afterwards, the United States relented and offered the systems, but Ankara declined and pressed forward with the sale.

Turkey has also mentioned the systems used by their favorite rivals, the Greeks. While the Hellenic Air Force operates several Patriot systems, they also operate the outdated S-300 PMU systems. However, they only operate 1 battalion consisting of 4 fire units and armed with only 80 of its older model (48N6EPM-1) missiles. Additionally, these were bought in the late 1990s before any larger threat of Russian counter-NATO aggression entered the picture. Finally, Greece isn’t slated to be involved in the F-35 program anyways.

Turkey for decades has been a key NATO ally, particularly with regards to missions launched in the Middle East. NATO jets were able to provide much-needed close air support to teams on the ground during the height of, and even ongoing, combat operations against the Islamic State and their supporting elements.

It is certainly true, however, that operations can still be conducted without Turkey’s assistance. Ankara refused to let any coalition member launch their offensive from their border area with Iraq in 2003. Nonetheless, the United States-led invasion of Iraq proved that even large-scale operations in the Middle East can be carried out from other jump-off locations. However, the inclusion of Turkey pays dividends, not just for NATO’s strategic goals, but also for more local Turkish interests.

The Turkish economy has notoriously been suffering a winter of lows. The F-35 program stood to bring an incredible boost to this economy. Manufacturing revenue, jobs, and the engineering requirements for the parts Turkey had been responsible for would have certainly provided a healthy injection into their economy. While the United States will have to find new suppliers, this is not as difficult as trying to overhaul one’s tragic domestic economic situation compounded by a pandemic. In the throes of irritation at being initially rebuked by the United States and the Patriot missile project, they have chosen to make a statement that they don’t have to bow to the whims of the West, may have unintended consequences.

In the shadows and around the watercooler, NATO members are beginning to ask quietly whether Turkey really belongs in the group. Erdogan’s severe consolidation of power and refusal to work as warmly with other members is a cold affront to the organization’s values. In addition, this year Ankara hosted several ranking members of the broadly detested terrorist group, Hamas, which saw many Western and Eastern leaders stare in shock and ire.

epa08024332 A general view of a Turkish air base with Russian-made S-400 air defense systems
during a test of the radar system. EPA-EFE//STR

The rash decision to include a Russian air defense system is another layer in that cake, albeit a layer with numerous underlying consequences that jeopardizes the total security of Europe. The ongoing contested control of the Black Sea becomes even more threatened by this move. If showing that they are a mature and independent state is important, there are a litany of other ways to prove that. Ways that don’t involve exposing yourself to those who would cause you and your organization significant and irrevocable harm.


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