July 12, 2019

Turkey receives Russian S-400 air defense system - a symptom of "Erdoğan disease"

Russian Air Force AN-124 at Murted Air Base, Turkey

On Friday, July 12, two Russian Air Force AN-124 (NATO: Condor) heavy lift aircraft delivered initial components of the S-400 Triumph (NATO: SA-21 Growler) air defense system to Murted air base on the outskirts of Ankara, Turkey. Turkey's purchase of the Russian system is the latest in a series of issues between members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Turkey, a key member of the transatlantic alliance, is also, at least currently, a member of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. The F-35 is a fifth generation stealth fighter produced by Lockheed Martin and in service with at least 10 air and naval forces around the world. Turkey is a Level 3 participant in the program, having ordered 30 of possibly 120 aircraft. The initial four aircraft have been delivered to the Turkish Air Force at the F-35 pilot training facility at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. Turkish Air Force maintenance personnel are also being trained at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.

The Turks have been warned that acquisition of the S-400 from Russia will halt their acquisition of the F-35 and terminate their participation in the distributed manufacturing program. The U.S. Air Force has stopped pilot training for Turkish pilots, and restricted access to the aircraft and training materials. Congress has passed legislation prohibiting the transfer of the Turkish jets in Arizona to Turkey pending the resolution of the S-400 issue.

The United States has been clear. The words of Acting Secretary of Defense to his counterpart, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar: “If Turkey procures the S-400, our two countries must develop a plan to discontinue Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program. While we seek to maintain our valued relationship, Turkey will not receive the F-35 if Turkey takes delivery of the S-400.”

This was reinforced by Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord: “Turkey still has the option to change course. If Turkey does not accept delivery of the S-400, we will enable Turkey to return to normal F-35 program activities. Turkey is a close NATO ally and our military-to-military relationship is strong.”

As of today, I would say that the issue has been settled. It seems that Erdoğan either does not think the American Administration is serious about removing Turkey from the F-35 program, or he has made a calculation that his relationship with the United States and NATO is not that important to his country's future.

I do not think the Trump Administration is bluffing. It is inconceivable that the United States would allow the same country that is operating a Russian near state-of-the-art air defense system to operate the world's most advanced aircraft, replete with sensitive avionics and reduced radar cross section technology.

While one might think that NATO ally Turkey would allow American intelligence access to the Russian S-400 system, the fact is that the "modified for export" version is delivered without source codes, advanced radar modes, and uses downgraded electronics.

When the Russians, or the United States for that matter, export these advanced systems, it is assumed that much of that technology will end up in foreign hands. We assume that exported U.S. technology will end up in Moscow or Beijing. The Russians will want to exploit the technology for intelligence and countermeasures, and the Chinese will just steal and clone the technology.

The S-400 purchase is just another symptom of what I will call "Erdoğan disease" - the myopic, blundering foreign policy moves that has cost Turkey much of its standing and likely its economy. Erdoğan seems to have pivoted to the east, favoring his burgeoning relationships with Russia and Iran at the expense of what used to be Turkey's attempts to align itself with Europe.

Other manifestations of Erdoğan disease?

When the United States began operations in Syria against the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Turkey, actually Erdoğan himself, was grossly unhelpful. The fact that most foreign ISIS fighters found their way into Syria via Turkey is not lost on the West.

I've spent a lot of time on both sides of the Turkey-Syria border. It is not a border I would attempt to cross clandestinely - it is replete with guard towers, minefields, patrols, etc. Turkish guards have orders to shoot anyone attempting to cross in either direction. Whoever crossed into Syria did so with Turkish help - either officially or unofficially.

As the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - whose main component is the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (know by their Kurdish initials YPG) - did the lion's share of the ground fighting that eventually dislodged ISIS from controlling territory in Syria, they were attacked by Turkish military forces.

Erdoğan considers the YPG to be just an extension of the designated Turkish Kurd terrorist PKK armed insurgency. The Turkish president insisted that Turkish troops be the forces to liberate the main ISIS stronghold of al-Raqqah, even though his forces were months away and would have had to fight their way though the SDF. The whole concept was so ludicrous that U.S. commanders dismissed it out of hand.

The ill-fated al-Raqqah plan was followed by the Turkish invasion of 'Afrin - claimed to be an anti-terrorism operation, but in realty was just an excuse to attack the YPG in northern Syria and prevent the YPG/Kurds from controlling the Syrian side of the border from the Iraqi border to Idlib province.

Then there is the Turkish presence in Syria's Idlib province, ostensibly to prevent the Syrians - with their Russian and Iranian-backed allies - from eliminating the remaining rebels and Islamists who are bottled up in the province. One might get the impression the Turks are protecting the al-Qa'idah faction and other jihadists. There is probably a reason for that impression....

Decision time is coming for Turkey, for the Turks and for Erdoğan. The three might not be the same thing. Erdoğan is fast losing internal support - the recent elections in Istanbul were a blow to Erdoğan and his AKP party. His popularity, especially in Trakya, has been steadily waning. Cozying up to the Russians and Iranians will not help.

Is there a cure for Erdoğan disease? Turkey and the Turks will have to figure that out.