The Russian Missile that Could End the U.S.-Turkish Alliance


At a U.S. Air Force base in Arizona right now, Turkish Air Force pilots are learning how to fly American jets that may never be delivered to Turkey – and a Russian missile could be to blame.

The Turkish government’s decision to purchase the Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missile system has prompted serious backlash in the United States. Beyond the current deep freeze in U.S.-Russian ties, some in the United States worry that Turkey’s operation of the American F-35 aircraft in range of the S-400’s powerful radar – which is reportedly capable of collecting electronic intelligence – will allow Russia to collect and exploit data about America and NATO’s future front line fighter. As a result, the United States seems to be considering blocking the export of the F-35 to Turkey, whose air force is set to receive the first two jets in late 2019 at an airbase in Malatya. Denying the aircraft to Turkey would undoubtedly help protect its secrets from potential Russian compromise, but would also signal to Turkey that it cannot be entrusted to safeguard Western defense equipment because of its friendship with Russia.

Turkey has dismissed American concerns, telling the United States that it will not allow Russian technicians to service the S-400 in Turkey, that it will design the missile’s operating system to prevent built-in Russian backdoors, and that the system will not be “plugged in” to NATO networks. But according to my interviews with U.S. officials in the legislative and executive branches, Ankara’s reassurances have failed to assuage the concerns about sensitive information on the F-35 ending up in Russian hands. Indeed, it seems increasingly likely that Washington will block the transfer of the jets to Turkey, formalizing the temporary measures in two recently passed appropriation bills to freeze funding for the transfer. If the two sides fail to reach agreement on the S-400, the likely U.S. response risks undermining a key element of the modern Turkish-American alliance: defense industrial cooperation.

There are three related risks that could deepen strains in the bilateral alliance. First, the transfer of the F-35 to Turkey may be blocked, which could then delay the delivery of aircraft to European F-35 operators. Second, the delivery of the S-400 to Turkey could prompt sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). U.S. officials have repeatedly warned Ankara that the imposition of sanctions will have negative consequences for U.S.-Turkish defense cooperation. Third, legacy and current U.S.-Turkish defense cooperation on a myriad of projects could be impacted should Turkish aerospace firms be sanctioned.

The contentious negotiations over U.S.-Turkish defense industrial cooperation symbolize a broader and uncomfortable geo-strategic issue: Ankara and Washington no longer have overlapping interests or a common understanding of how to solve regional problems. The two sides oppose one another in Syria and, since the Turkish-Russian rapprochement, view the Russian threat differently. Accordingly, they have adopted conflicting policy goals. The S-400 is a microcosm of this reality: The United States and those European allies who operate the F-35 think the Russian missile radar poses a threat, while Turkey disagrees. The F-35’s secrets, for Ankara, are not as important as the relationship it has forged with Russia, and the cost of cancelling a questionable procurement decision outweighs the benefits of fixing the spat with the United States. This Turkish choice, in turn, is a clear signal that Ankara is not willing to prioritize its relationship with Washington, a reality that will have repercussions far beyond defense procurement.

American Support for the Turkish Defense Industry: Tensions and Tradeoffs

In the late 1970s and 1980s, the Turkish government began building up an indigenous defense industry. The passage of Law No. 3238 in 1985 sought to build up Turkey’s domestic arms industry through a policy of offsets for military procurements. In 1998, Turkey expanded on this law with the Turkish Cabinet’s passage of Resolution #23378, which is the basis for the now-common theme in the Erdogan administration’s: Equip the Turkish armed forces with domestically produced arms and ensure that Turkish firms are globally competitive in high-technology defense products. For this reason, Ankara has long wanted to purchase a long-range air and missile defense system with the intent of reaching separate agreements that would eventually allow Turkey’s local industry to produce its own missile systems to replace imported ones — a program that has already started.

Ankara’s defense procurement strategy is not unique. Many countries condition the purchase of U.S. military equipment on a contractual agreement that the technology will be transferred to, co-produced by, or otherwise benefit local industry. This strategy, however, often leads to tensions over U.S. export controls, which generally exist to ensure adversaries do not gain access to sensitive American-origin technology. The Turkish government has long criticized the United States for failing to meet Turkish firms’ demands related to technology transfer and work-share arrangements. Washington and Ankara are broadly aligned on the need to ensure the readiness of the Turkish Armed Forces and to ensure that the two militaries are interoperable. However, as is the case with other allies, Ankara’s desire to build a domestic defense industry could help to strengthen Turkish armed forces — a U.S. foreign policy goal — but also result in Turkey showing a preference for domestic suppliers, which complicates American private industry access to the Turkish market.

This fundamental tension — U.S. support for Turkish industrial development versus the desire to continue to export American-made items — is not new. In 1974, after Turkey intervened in Cyprus over the objections of the Nixon administration, the U.S. Congress imposed an arms embargo to punish Turkey for its decision to use military force. The embargo severely disrupted Turkish military planning and created a serious shortage in spare parts. It also demonstrated Congress’ power to dictate foreign policy to a wary executive branch — a dynamic that resembles the S-400 debate.

In response, the Turkish government closed jointly operated U.S.-Turkish military bases, questioned the legal validity of the presence of the 15,000 or so American military personnel in Turkey, and placed all bases in the country under Turkish command. In 1980, the United States and Turkey reached a deal on the Defense Economic Cooperation Agreement to overcome the fallout. The agreement was an effort to undo the dueling countermeasures, rebuild trust, increase defense cooperation, and give U.S. support to Turkey’s efforts to build domestic industry. Ankara committed to lessening its dependence on the United States and starting the process of developing a defense industrial base to equip and supply its own armed forces.

The Turkish decision to purchase the S-400 has baffled many in Washington. Though the Turkish government has long-pursued long-range air and missile defense, it has always prioritized the transfer of technology and work share arrangements to ensure robust local industrial participation. Russia has not reached any substantive agreement with the Turkish government on any of these criteria. Ankara has indicated that it intends to begin phasing out the F-16 — currently the backbone of the Turkish Air Force — in 2023, and start the transition to the F-35. If the deal falls apart, however, Turkey could be forced to rely on the F-16 for much longer than initially planned. This has led to speculation that the purchase of the S-400 stems from a top-down political decision made between two men: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Vladimir Putin.



The S-400 agreement comes amid a severe downturn in U.S.-Turkish relations, stemming from radically incongruent policy aims in Syria, sharp disagreements about the imprisonment of Americans in Turkey, and the U.S. government’s refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen. But in contrast to these previous crises, the potential punishment for the S-400 purchase — a severe curtailment of U.S.-Turkish defense cooperation and the denial of the export of a fighter jet Turkey helped to finance — will undermine the centerpiece of the post-1980 U.S.-Turkish alliance.

Washington is using a combination of carrots and sticks to try to avoid this. The United States has threatened sanctions, but also offered to replace the S-400 with the U.S.-made Patriot air and missile defense system. Turkey has, thus far, refused to budge, saying it will go ahead with the purchase of the S-400. As the clock ticks towards the delivery of the Russian missile system and subsequent triggering of CAATSA sanctions, the negotiations appear to have ended in disagreement, raising the specter of Turkey’s removal from the F-35 program.

National Security Decision-Making in Turkey Since 2016

Despite the risks and the Patriot counter-offer, Erdogan and senior officials have not signaled that any change in policy is on the agenda. Ankara’s approach may stem from recent changes in domestic politics, the serious downturn in U.S.-Turkish relations, and a longer-term change in how the Turkish national security elite makes decisions. Events in Syria – specifically, serious disagreement over how to address the civil war and fight Islamic State, as well as U.S. support for a Kurdish ground force that Turkey opposes – have made clear that Washington and Ankara have vastly different interests in the Middle East. Within Turkey itself, the consolidation of power in the presidency, the erosion of Turkish democratic institutions, and the lasting effects of the failed July 2016 coup attempt have also changed decision-making on foreign policy. The policymaking apparatus is now far narrower. It is unclear how information is transmitted from lower levels of the bureaucracy up the chain to Erdogan, how that information comports with Erdogan’s self-defined interests, and how the resulting policy gets made.

One result of these shifts has been the Turkish government’s efforts to bolster relations with Russia. The Turkish-Russian entente spurred from a recalibration of Ankara’s interests in Syria and a recognition that Moscow’s approval was needed to launch two cross-border operations designed to counter the Syrian Kurds. Talks with Russia take place at the highest levels, with Erdogan often negotiating directly with Putin. The arrangement favors both countries’ political systems, whereby power is significantly concentrated in the office of the presidency and the bureaucracy is less empowered to freestyle and go beyond talking points to try and find common ground with the United States.

This dynamic has shaped the dueling negotiations with Russia for the S-400 and with the United States for the Patriot system. In the past, Washington could count on Turkish political elites to weigh American reactions to policy choices as one key variable of the policymaking process. This is no longer the case. Instead, Ankara has made clear that it will pursue its own interests, independent of considerations of its traditional allies, and work with leaders who enable the realization of narrowly-defined Turkish interests. This new dynamic in Turkish decision-making has created space to pursue unorthodox procurement decisions simply because Erdogan chooses to absorb expected allied condemnation and to gamble that the West will eventually acquiesce because of the strategic importance many attach to Turkey’s location on the map.

Patriot Games: How Turkey Out-Negotiated Itself

In 2017, Erdogan and Putin met face-to-face eight times, leading to a mid-December announcement that an agreement had been reached on the S-400 and, eventually, the signing of a bilateral accord. Ankara has maintained that the agreement included arrangements for joint development, without going into any detail. Putin has reaffirmed a willingness to cooperate with Turkey on commercial ventures, but the head of Russia’s state-owned Rostec, Sergey Chemezov, told reporters that the agreement does not include any technology transfer arrangements. For now, it appears that the only specific agreement details the financing terms and a delivery timeline.

Turkey’s concurrent talks with the United States are at a different stage. In early January, the United States sent a delegation to Turkey to discuss the Patriot offer in full detail, followed by a second U.S. Army delegation to discuss the system’s capabilities. The U.S.-Turkish talks do not appear to have focused on co-production and co-development agreements, though those talks are detailed and would take place only after Ankara officially selected the Patriot and contract negotiations begin.

The State and Defense Departments have outlined in a series of non-binding documents — summarized in an unclassified summary of a congressionally mandated Department of Defense report — the risks the S-400 purchase poses for bilateral relations and Turkish participation in the F-35 consortium.

The first two Turkish F-35 aircraft are scheduled to fly to Turkey in November 2019. However, in keeping with the growing skepticism in the American policymaking apparatus about the S-400, language in the Consolidated Appropriation Act of 2019 blocked funding for the jet’s transfer until the State Department submits a report to Congress detailing a “description of plans for the imposition of sanctions, if appropriate” for the purchase of the Russian missile. This follows a similar mandate, contained in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019, which blocked funding for the transfer of the F-35 until the Department of Defense submitted a report detailing Turkish participation in the F-35 program. This report was designed to strengthen the ongoing talks about the Patriot system, but seems to have had little impact on decision-making in Ankara. So, as of now, the S-400 will be delivered before the proposed transfer date, which would set in motion a decision on sanctions and ultimately the Turkish role in the F-35 program.

The American “carrots” are designed to entice Ankara to cease cooperation with Moscow and reach an agreement for the export of a long-range air defense system. From the outset of these talks, the United States has tried to meet the Turkish demand for the rapid delivery of a missile system. The United States initially offered to export the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS), according to interviews I have conducted with U.S. government officials in the executive and legislative branches. Ankara was not interested in NASAMS, so the talks shifted to Patriot and a rapid delivery timetable. To meet the deadline, the first two firing units included in this offer are to be an off-the-shelf purchase. After reaching the agreement on these two units, the two sides would use the time for the production and eventual delivery of Patriot to finalize the complicated offset arrangements that Ankara covets. This approach would prevent the imposition of U.S. sanctions and ensure that the F-35 gets delivered to Turkey.

However, at the time of this writing, the Turkish government has indicated that they have failed to reach agreement with the U.S. on financing. Meanwhile, Erdogan has made clear that the “deal is done” for the S-400 and that Ankara will explore cooperation with Russian on future air defense systems.

A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: The End Game

It has become common in Turkey to claim that the United States has refused to sell the Patriot system or failed to seriously grapple with how to arrange for local industry participation. This is not true. American industry and the U.S. government have been involved in on-and-off negotiations about Patriot with counterparts in Turkey for at least a decade. The back-and-forth about which side is to blame is ultimately irrelevant. Turkey has blamed the United States. Washington is struggling to understand why its NATO ally would purchase a Russian missile system that threatens its own fighter jets. Interviewees from European countries that use the F-35 are just as confused as their counterparts in Washington.

It is strange to imagine a NATO member not being trusted with Western defense equipment. It is also hard to imagine a NATO member making the conscious decision to compromise the backbone of the alliance’s airpower. And yet, Turkey has made clear that it will absorb the political costs and put its own jet at risk to take ownership of the S-400. This uncomfortable reality should force significant introspection: What is the future of the U.S.-Turkish alliance? Even if Ankara makes a last-minute change, or the Department of Defense finds a work-around to protect the jet that allows for delivery, the need for coercive threats to alter Turkish decision-making underscores just how unhealthy the bilateral relationship has become.

Ankara has signaled that it is determined to chart a more independent foreign policy and, in contrast to much of NATO, has shown deference to Moscow. This approach is not without logic: Russia has proved a valuable partner in Syria and on trade and commercial matters, whereas the United States and Turkey have clashed over how to prosecute the war against Islamic State. The Turkish and Russian governments are now similarly structured, with a strong executive at the center of a top-down policymaking apparatus. The American policymaking process is far messier than in Russia — and this is a good thing. Washington remains a democracy, with different mechanisms in place to reach consensus on policymaking.

The S-400 saga is a microcosm of broader, structural changes driving the United States and Turkey apart. Beyond personality politics, it is now simply a fact that Washington and Ankara have different interests in the Middle East and view one another as hindrances to realizing national goals. Given this reality, it would be imprudent for the United States (and European F-35 operators) not to study its options, and start looking at ways to mitigate the risk to the F-35. At the very least, the United States could plan around Turkey and delay or cancel the delivery. This would risk Ankara’s ire and could start the rupture of the bilateral relationship or force Ankara to choose between its traditional allies and Russia. As part of this planning, Washington would also have to think about how to decrease exposure of U.S. aircraft operating or transiting Turkish airspace.

But any tactical changes in how the United States operates in Turkey should not distract from the deeper fissure. The United States and its allies cannot stop a country from purchasing a Russian missile system that risks giving Moscow access to F-35 data. Instead, the alliance has to assume that its members will make prudent defense procurements in line with their own national objectives that also augment the capabilities of NATO. This is the very essence of burden-sharing. If a member chooses to disregard the shared security concerns of future F-35 operators, the long-lasting issue will outweigh narrow security concerns. It signals a broader political rupture that will be hard to overcome and the future unclear.



Aaron Stein is the director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Image: vitaly kuzmin