US sees Turkey’s S-400 deal as fait accompli

Three developments in quick succession in the weekend bring closer to a flashpoint the brewing discord between the US and Turkey on account of the latter’s purchase of the S-400 air defence system. 

First, Russia disclosed on Friday that the delivery of the S-400 missile defense system will begin within two months. Turkey has made the advance payments and the Turkish military personnel have completed their training in Russia to operate the system. It appears that the die is cast.

Second, Washington has reacted instantaneously, as if anticipating that Turkey is sticking to its decision despite immense American pressure.  

The US Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan has addressed a letter to his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar — and simultaneously leaked it to the media — intimating that “Turkey will not receive the F-35 if Turkey takes delivery of the S-400. You still have the option to change course on the S-400.” 

(US Navy F-35C test aircraft on test flight, Maryland. File photo) 

Shanahan added that “Turkish F-35 students currently in training” in the US will be sent back by July 31 and no new training programme for Turkish personnel is being scheduled “as we anticipate they would be recalled in the near future.” Meanwhile, in immediate terms, “To facilitate and orderly cessation of Turkish participation in the programmatic management activities of the F-35 program, we will not plan for Turkish participation in the annual F-35 Chief Executive Officer Roundtable on June 12, 2019 and planned updates to the program’s governing programs will proceed without Turkey’s participation.”  

Shanahan referred to the Russia-related Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), but concluded that the two countries should endeavour to “manage this matter in a respectful way, to preserve other aspects of our deep security cooperation.” 

Third, an innocuous-sounding US State Department readout on June 6 said: “Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan met today with Greek Defense Minister Evangelos Apostolakis to reaffirm the U.S. and Greek commitment to cooperation that strengthens bilateral defense and security and NATO, and to continue discussions started at the December 2018 U.S.-Greece Strategic Dialogue.  Deputy Secretary Sullivan underscored the strategic importance of the Eastern Mediterranean and Balkans and highlighted Greece’s role as a pillar of stability and key partner in the region.” 

Considering that Turkey’s hostile relations with Greece are even more ancient than India-Pakistan enmity, it is at once apparent that Washington is hitting back at Turkey on the geopolitical plane. Turkey’s principal motivation to procure the S-400 missile defence system is its unmatched capability to threaten aircraft up to 200 miles away—giving it so-called anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) (A2AD) potential. 

(Russia’s S-400 anti-ballistic missile system)

The Turkish motivation is comparable to India’s (except that India has problematic relationships with two countries.) In layman’s terms, Turkey’s interest in the S-400 needs to be understood in terms of its ongoing rivalry with fellow NATO member Greece, with which it has nearly fought a war over the island of Cyprus. The S-400’s anti-access capabilities strengthen Turkey’s hand in its security competition with Greece. 

Quite simply, S-400 system is peerless. The Patriot system that the US has offered Turkey as alternative is optimised for relatively short-range (less than 40 kms) ballistic missile defence, lacking in A2AD potential. 

Like any divorce, this is going to be a messy affair. Out of all the issues complicating the Turkish-American relationship — starting with the US-backed failed coup d’état attempt in July 2016 to kill President Recep Erdogan and overthrow his nationalist government — the S-400 issue has surged as the coup de grâce. 

To be sure, if the US cancels the collaboration with Turkey on the development and production of F-35 fighter jets, the latter will look for alternate sources of stealth technology. The fact of the matter is that Turkey seems unperturbed that it is parting ways with the US’ program to develop the F35 fighter and buy 100 planes. But Turkey would like the US to initiate the break-up so that it is free to develop options. In the Turkish assessment,  F-35 has serious deficiencies. 

Equally, Turkey (like India) has already stated its ambitions to develop a domestic stealth fighter and knows that the US will never transfer such cutting edge technology. In all probability, Turkey may approach Russia. Speculation is rife.  

Quite obviously, all this has very serious implications for India, which merit a separate analysis.