Turkey doubled-down on its controversial decision to acquire Russian S-400 air-defense systems by setting out to acquire Russian Sukhoi SU-35 fighter jets.
Last month, Turkey finalized a $2.5 billion deal with Russia and acquired the first S-400 systems. The purchase was in response to the U.S. delaying an acceptable alternative. Turkey is a member of the Northern Alliance Treaty Organization (NATO) and acquiring Russian weaponry is problematic, making their systems operationally incompatible with those of the other NATO nations.
The S-400 was specifically designed to shoot down advanced U.S. warplanes like the F-35.
It is touted to have a range of up to 150 miles (240 km) and the ability to intercept ballistic missiles from up to 38 miles away.
The Turkish S-400’s are scheduled to be operational in September. The second batch of S-400’s is scheduled to arrive next year. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has already announced that his country intends to take part in the upcoming S-500 program.
Last month the sale of the S-400 to Turkey was finalized and the U.S. announced that Turkey was being removed from the F-35 program. Turkey was slated to purchase 120 of the hyper-advanced F-35’s. Turkey has already technically received several F-35s, but they remain on U.S. soil, and their transfer has been blocked by Congress.
The acquisition of Russian hardware has raised doubts about the future of Turkey as a NATO member.
The White House at the time said, “The F-35 cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence-collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities.”
After the U.S., Turkey has the second-largest land army of any NATO member and is considered a key member of the alliance.
Erdogan denied that acquisition of the S-400 was detrimental to his country’s NATO membership.
“There is no concrete evidence showing the S-400s will harm the F-35s or NATO, nobody should deceive each other. Many NATO member states have purchased from Russia. We don’t see this being turned into a crisis,” Erdogan was quoted as saying in Reuters.
Yeni Safak, a Turkish news daily, reported that the Turkey’s Presidency of Defense Industries (SSB), the Turkish Air Force Command, and other relevant authorities have been asked to investigate the possibility of purchasing the Russian SU-35 jets.
The conflict over military hardware underscores other disagreements between Turkey and the U.S.
The U.S.-led coalition in Syria allied with Kurdish militia in the effort to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS). Turkey considers the Kurdish militia to be a terrorist and has been at war with them for decades.
Despite acquiring Russian military hardware, Turkey’s relationship with Russia is at least as rocky as its relationship with U.S. In 2015, Turkish F-16 combat aircraft shot down a Russian Su-24 during an airspace dispute close to the Turkish-Syrian border. In response, Russia imposed a number of economic sanctions on Turkey. Relations were normalized one year later.
Since that time, the two countries have sided together in political disputes with the U.S.
Ironically, the current S-400 situation is the mirror image of a crisis that emerged in 1997 when Cyprus, Turkey’s smaller and less militaristic neighbor, planned to install two Russian-made S-300 air-defense systems. Turkey overtly threatened either a pre-emptive strike to prevent the arrival of the missiles or an actual war on Cyprus as a response to the arrival of the missiles. Turkey obtained from Israel surface-to-surface missiles, which could be used in a military operation to destroy the S-300 when they would be installed on the island. The crisis effectively ended in 1998 with the decision of the Cypriot government to transfer the S-300s to Greece’s Hellenic Air Force in exchange for alternative weapons from Greece. The ultimate irony is that while the Greek S-300’s were used in joint Cypriot-Israel air exercises, giving the Israeli Air Force a rare glimpse into the capabilities of the Russian system.