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25.07.2021 Author: Vladimir Odintsov

Why Isn’t Turkey Putting the S-400 Into Service?


As we know, Russia and Turkey signed a contract for Moscow to supply Ankara with S-400 surface-to-air missile systems in 2017. On October 23, 2019, Rosoboronexport reported that Russia had fulfilled this contract ahead of schedule by supplying all elements of S-400 systems to Turkey, including missiles, and Turkey had fully paid for the contract. As a result, Turkey was the first NATO country to buy these systems from Russia, acquiring four battalions of S-400 air defense systems at the cost of $2.5 billion, cheaper than what the US offered for air defense systems and more technically advanced.

Earlier, Erdoğan stated that Turkey would adopt the S-400 surface-to-air missile systems in April 2020. Since the delivery of the S-400, several hundred Turkish specialists have already been retrained at the Russian base. They proceeded to have further training in their country and took part in the tests.

However, almost two years have passed since the delivery of the S-400 to Turkey, but Ankara has not published the targets it has tested. All the observers saw was the launch of a missile, but not the hitting of the target. The Turkish side does not comment on these circumstances, but they have already sparked various speculations.

The S-400 system is designed to destroy all modern and advanced aerospace weapons (including hypersonic ones) and was adopted for service in Russia in 2007. The system can hit targets at a range of up to 400 km flying at up to 4.8 km/s, including low-flying targets at an altitude of 5 meters: cruise missiles, tactical and strategic aircraft, ballistic missile maneuvering warheads. Early detection radar provides a monitoring range of up to 600 km. The S-400 surface-to-air missile system is globally regarded as the most advanced and effective at the present stage.

The previous generation of Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile systems is in service worldwide. China, Iran, Syria, and Venezuela, among others, have acquired them, and they are also in the arsenal of NATO countries such as Greece, Bulgaria, and Slovakia. As for Turkey, today, its army is equipped not only with Russian S-400s but also the BTR-80 armored personnel carriers, Mi-17 helicopters, anti-tank missile systems, and various small arms. In addition, Russia and Turkey are cooperating to integrate Russian weapons into Turkish naval ships, and Ankara is interested in new reactive systems, APCs, and anti-tank systems.

Ankara’s decision to buy S-400s from Russia provoked a strongly adverse reaction from the United States and NATO in general. For almost three years, the United States has not stopped trying to get Turkey to give up its Russian surface-to-air missile systems. Because Turkey did not yield to this pressure and did not get rid of S-400s, Washington first threatened Ankara with “big trouble,” then menaced to expel Turkey from NATO, refused to supply it with 100 F-35s, and excluded Ankara from the American program for the production of fifth-generation fighter-bombers F-35. In December 2020, Washington tightened its sanctions.

In addition to sanctions, there were some very exotic ideas, in particular. US Senator John Thune suggested buying Russian S-400s from Turkey (at the expense of the Pentagon budget), as was reported by Defense News a year ago. The amount of the deal was estimated at 10 billion dollars. In addition, the senator also put forward a condition: Turkey must promise not to use the proceeds to acquire other military equipment incompatible with NATO requirements. This means it is supposed to guarantee its dependence on military equipment and weapons only from the United States. Ankara will then stop determining its military and technical policy and transfer it to the White House and the Pentagon.

On the other hand, a year earlier, US President Donald Trump offered Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a $100 billion trade deal and a “workaround” to resolve the sanctions situation for the purchase of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile systems, as reported by The Washington Post.

But only a few months ago, there were reports in some Western media that Ankara had allegedly agreed to sell the S-400 Triumph to Washington. For example, at the end of 2020, the Greek newspaper Pentapostagma claimed that Turkish military engineers, under the pressure of the United States, “wanted to reprogram the ‘friend-or-foe identification of surface-to-air missile systems purchased from Russia.” There is no confirmation of these statements.

There have also been reports that high-ranking Turkish army officials and technical experts have allegedly been actively studying one of the S-400 Triumph surface-to-air missile systems fielded into the Turkish Armed Forces to develop their own analogs of the Russian surface-to-air missile systems. However, due to the extraordinary secrecy of the world’s best missile launchers, many design innovations, and technically complex solutions, Turkish military officials could not copy the Russian design. The Turkish side does not comment on these circumstances, so the information about the disassembly of the S-400s is unofficial.

On the whole, as far as unauthorized hacking of S-400 equipment is concerned, this option is hardly worth considering. The S-400 set supplied to Turkey is designed so that if someone tries to get into its electronic “guts,” the most complex equipment fails and cannot be repaired without Russian specialists. In this case, there is the most accessible line of defense – the legal one. At the time of signing the contract, there were very serious requirements for the purchasing party. In particular, Turkey has no right to disassemble the complex, make changes to it or maintain it. If Russian experts detect tampering with the system, Russia has the right to take these systems back or disable them, which turns the S-400s into a pile of metal.

Of course, attempts to hack into military equipment purchased by foreign powers from Russia have been noted before, but it is almost impossible to make such systems by analogy. At one time, China purchased Russian Tor missile systems, which are almost one hundred percent effective, but could not produce the same ones, because there is a lot of know-how that is not transferred in the documents. Then China received the first modification of the S-300 from Russia; it was “disassembled” there and copied, and then it made its own – to be frank, worse. Afterwards they tried to modify it to a very serious level, but nothing came of it, and the Chinese began to buy the S-300PMU2 systems in Russia. By the way, it was also copied, but their version met Russian specifications only about 70%.

Radars for the Russian S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missile systems are a key component that has been of interest to US military intelligence for many years. For the sake of revealing the secret of their work, some of the onboard equipment of such systems was even secretly exported from Ukraine – radars and launch complexes S-300PT developed during Soviet times. However, even this has not helped the Pentagon. At the same time, all types of aircraft, from F-16 fighters of different versions to the stealthy F-35, can be seen very well on the observation screens of Russian surface-to-air missile systems.

To “crush” the S-400 radars and missiles, the USA considered repeating an operation similar to the Palestinian Iron Dome: to “bombard” the launch platforms with a dozen cruise missiles.  But when military auditors calculated the cost of each attack, there was a scandal in Washington: The destruction of one S-400 from the battalion would have cost $50-60 million, and with at least one downed fighter from the attacking unit, the cost would have jumped to $100 million. Therefore, this idea was immediately abandoned. According to rough estimates, the United States has spent about $20 billion to create an “antidote” to S-400. Still, it has not yet managed to achieve even the hypothetical destruction of Russian air defense systems.

As for Turkey’s own national security interests, it should not be forgotten that it has an old adversary in the form of Greece, which is sometimes held back from direct confrontation only by its membership in NATO. At the same time, the Greeks themselves have a relatively strong army, the air defense of which is based on the Russian-made Strela, Osa-AKM, Tor-M2, and S-300 systems. Ankara should have a significant advantage in the quality of armaments to confidently confront such adversaries, which was supposed to be done by using the fifth-generation fighters F-35 and the most modern S-400 surface-to-air missile systems. So it is clearly not in Ankara’s interests to risk a contract with Russia on S-400.

And this is confirmed by Ankara’s expressed willingness to buy a second set of S-400 surface-to-air missile systems from Russia. The project for the supply of which is already being prepared by Rosoboronexport.

Therefore, the explanation of why Turkey is not commissioning the S-400s it has already purchased is quite bland. The commissioning was postponed because of the epidemic of coronavirus. After all, this is not a simple matter and requires the presence of both Turkish and Russian specialists.

Vladimir Odintsov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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