The Day After S-400: The Turkish-American Relationship Will Get Worse


For the 500 or so days since Turkey and Russia signed an agreement for the acquisition and eventual deployment of the Russian S-400 air and missile system, the United States has sought to convince Turkey to back out. The United States is concerned that the Russian-made S-400 will collect valuable electronic intelligence about the F-35, the American-made fighter jet Turkey is slated to receive in November. Talks between Washington and Ankara have taken place at the presidential level, amongst different elements of the civilian bureaucracy, between the two militaries, and at the parliamentary level — with no success. At this point, the United States needs to start planning for the day after the first S-400 is delivered. This exercise should inform U.S. thinking about how to plan around an increasingly recalcitrant Turkey and prepare for a future in which Ankara remains a NATO member, but one that operates an advanced Russian system that could help Russia glean useful data about the alliance’s air operations. Turkey risks legacy and current U.S.-Turkish defense co-production and development programs if it continues to deepen defense cooperation with Russia. For the United States, the situation is less bleak. In fact, searching for alternatives to Turkish military assets provides some strategic opportunities in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Still, working around Turkey will be financially and politically costly for NATO. The deepest, most intractable problem is what the dust-up reveals about Turkey’s lack of commitment to the core NATO tenets of interoperability, burden-sharing, and collective defense — an outcome that weakens the entirety of the alliance, including the United States.

A Tale of Two Systems: The S-400 and the F-35

On Wednesday, Turkish Minister of Defense, Hulusi Akar announced that 100 or so Turkish soldiers had arrived in Russia to begin operator training for the S-400. If all goes according to plan, in July, Ankara plans to “acquire” the S-400, perhaps suggesting that the 100 or so troops would begin to operate the system inside Russia before they are delivered to Turkey. Finally, the Turkish minister of defense, Hulusi Akar, has indicated that the Turkish S-400s will be deployed in October 2019.

Meanwhile, the U.S. transfer of F-35s to Turkey has been halted. Turkey acquired its first of four aircraft in June 2018 at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, beginning the formal training process for Turkish pilots, alongside a similar program for maintainers at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida and the initial plan was to transfer the first jets to Turkey in November 2019. However, Congress prevented the transfer of these aircraft, citing concerns over the S-400. The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act blocked funding for the transfer until the Department of Defense submitted a report detailing Turkish participation in the F-35 program and plans to replace Turkish firms in the F-35 supply chain. The Consolidated Appropriation Act of 2019 similarly blocked funding 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.

Ankara has responded to this pressure with a proposal of its own: a technical working group. This proposal seeks to include NATO allies in technical discussions about how to mitigate the threat the S-400 radar poses to the F-35 so that the two systems can be safely co-located in Turkey. This proposal appears to be an effort to elevate “process” over substance, and to take what is a bilateral issue and try and involve NATO. To make this proposal work, Ankara would have to signal overtly that it will delay acquisition of S-400 until the panel discussed the threats to F-35. The Turkish leadership has done just the opposite, beginning with the start of Turkish training in Russia, along with senior leaders reiterating that the S-400 purchase is a “done deal” and that the system will indeed be deployed in October.

Even if Turkey’s offer was genuine, it may be too late. It will be hard for Ankara to walk back the October delivery and deployment date now that training has begun. Assuming this is the case, the United States is likely to do two things. First, the F-35s will not be allowed to fly to Turkey. Second, once the first S-400 shows up in Turkey, sanctions outlined in the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act will be triggered. The sanctions will hit Turkey’s poorly performing economy, making life more difficult for the average Turkish citizen. The broader looming challenge will be for American companies and government to adjust to working with a sanctioned entity. Ankara could make this situation worse if it deepens defense cooperation with Moscow.

Deepening Turkish-Russian Defense Ties

Since the late 1970s, in procurement negotiations with Western aerospace firms, the Turkish government has prioritized co-producing and developing defense equipment in Turkey. In the case of S-400, Ankara departed from this historical norm and agreed to weaker co-production terms than it had previously demanded of firms in the United States and Europe. This is disconcerting, but could actually help shield legacy U.S.-Turkish defense cooperation from being negatively impacted by the deal with Russia. However, if Ankara were to actually reach agreement for the co-production of combat aircraft, like the Russian Su-57, as the foreign and defense ministers have hinted is being discussed, things could get even worse. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has underscored a willingness to explore deeper ties with Russia. In an interview with Turkey’s NTV, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu indicated that “if the F-35s don’t work out, I will again have to procure the jets I need from elsewhere … There are [Russian] SU-34, SU-57 and others. I will absolutely meet my needs from somewhere until I can produce it myself.”

Sergei Chemezov, the CEO of Russia’s Rostec Corporation, has suggested that his firm would consider a request from Turkey “about the production localization or technology transfer” for the Su-57 jet. Chemezov also added that Moscow would consider working with Turkey on S-500, a surface to air missile still under development in Russia, and which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has cited as a missile Turkey intends to “co-produce with Russia.” Moscow has an incentive to hold key technology back, owing to Turkey’s membership in NATO and legitimate concerns that the United States could exploit Russian-origin technology in Turkey. The Russian daily Kommersant has reported that Russia’s security services oppose any serious technology transfer for this reason, arguing that it would be inappropriate to share secrets with a NATO member. The report does indicate that the Russian security services would not oppose some minimal local work share agreement for Turkish firms.

But if the two sides were to reach an arrangement similar to the now-defunct Russian-Indian partnership for the production of a Su-57 variant that involves Turkish aerospace firms, the risk to U.S.-Turkish defense programs will grow more acute. Specifically, If Ankara were to reach agreement with Russia to co-produce components of either of these systems, the United States could decide that Russia could gain access to U.S. origin defense equipment, resulting in the revocation of licenses for U.S.-controlled technology. This could negatively impact the entirety of the Turkish F-16 fighter fleet, American origin helicopter co-production programs, and severely hobble the Turkish defense industry and the armed forces. However, Ankara will have to do something to account for the loss of F-35, creating a set of bad options ranging from waiting for the development of a jet Turkey hopes to manufacture with British assistance (although the program is “stalled” over disagreements about control over the jet engine’s intellectual property), or the risky short-term purchase from Moscow.

All of this matters for the United States. Independent of the bilateral tensions, Washington has a very strong interest in each NATO member having a strong military, capable of working closely with the United States. But a weakened Turkey, faced with American sanctions, could choose to deepen its reliance on Russia. This outcome will benefit Russia, but at this point, Moscow is playing with house money because of Ankara’s initial decision to purchase the S-400.

America’s Options: NATO’s New Eastern Flank

Beyond the risk to legacy defense cooperation, the United States will soon have to contend with how to plan NATO training exercises if it can’t trust Turkey to protect the F-35. The first and most tangible outcome may require moving the F-35 engine maintenance facility from Eskisehir, Turkey, to the Netherlands. As part of Turkey’s participation in the F-35 consortium, it is currently slated to serve as Europe’s primary engine maintenance hub. This is certain to change, given the concerns about flying allied F-35s in and out of S-400-patrolled Turkish airspace. Second, in any future NATO air exercise in Turkey, NATO countries could simply choose not to send F-35 for joint training.

It would be imprudent not to expect Ankara to take some retaliatory measures, most likely aimed at aspects of the U.S.-Turkish defense relationship. Retaliating in this fashion is complicated because of Turkey’s NATO membership and the terms in the Defense and Economic Cooperation Agreement (DECA). The agreement limits U.S. military activities in and from Turkish military bases to NATO-related missions, meaning the Turkish government must approve any so-called “out of area” missions. In theory, Turkey could retaliate against the withholding of F-35 by preventing the United States from using Turkish territory for combat operations in the Middle East. This reaction would ensure that Turkey’s role within NATO remains intact, but also that the United States feels some pain for the forthcoming sanctions.

This would mean Turkey would still host an American operated TPY/2 radar because it supports NATO’s effort to field ballistic missile defense to protect European populations from missile attack. The radar provides early warning and discrimination data for the two Aegis ashore missile defense sites at Romania’s Deveselu Air Force Base and Poland’s Redzikowo Air Force Base. These two bases also provide the United States with options to work around Turkey. Romania and Poland are two countries that would welcome an increased U.S. presence. The United States should consider increasing funding to support American and NATO air operations from the Polish and Romanian air bases. This move would increase U.S. basing options in Europe, while using the Russian entente with Turkey as an opportunity to increase NATO presence along the alliance’s eastern periphery. In essence, Washington could flip the script and use Russia’s outreach to Turkey to its advantage, deepening its presence in eastern Europe and reminding Moscow of American capabilities at the edges of Russian territory.  However, as Michael Kofman wrote in War on the Rocks, the United States does need more forces in Europe, but “a permanent U.S. base in Poland will not deter Russia any better, and it will probably do more harm to NATO than good. From the standpoint of deterrence and alliance politics, it’s a foolish and detrimental idea.”

With this in mind, Greece could emerge as another attractive candidate. One option is Andravida Air Force Base, which hosts the INIOHOS multinational exercise involving aircraft from Cyprus, Italy, Israel, and the United Arab Emirate, alongside the Hellenic and American Air Forces. A second option is increasing the U.S. footprint at Larissa Air Base. The Air Base currently hosts U.S. drones, as their permanent base in Africa undergoes repairs. Moreover, according to the local Greek Daily, Kathimerini, there are talks to base KC-135 tankers at Larissa. A U.S. presence at either air base would offer increased protection from long-range Russian missiles.



America’s Options: Flexibility in the Middle East

The potential erosion of the U.S.-Turkish military relationship may similarly be an opportunity to increase American options in the Middle East. America’s open-ended military presence in the region has, at times, brought it into conflict with allies and partners — including, notably, Turkey. The likelihood that bilateral relations will get even worse is an opportunity to think about lessening Turkey’s role in any future U.S. operation in the Middle East — assuming, as seems to be the case, that the U.S. presence in the region is unlikely to meaningfully reduce anytime soon.

As RAND’s Stacy Pettyjohn and Jennifer Kavanagh note in Access Granted: Political Challenges to the U.S. Overseas Military Presence, 1945–2014, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Spain have historically been particularly reluctant to provide peacetime contingency access for American combat operations. Further, according to the study:

Turkey has denied U.S. access more often (nine times) than restricted it (seven times) but seems evenly disposed toward either course of action. Moreover, the case study analysis indicates that these numbers underrepresent the extent of Turkish restrictions during Operation Northern Watch, the no-fly zone over Iraq. This operation is counted only once in the data set, but over its course, Turkey not only established some of the most restrictive rules of engagement but also habitually cancelled U.S. operations.

Turkey’s reluctance to support American combat operations in the Middle East stems from a stark reality: Washington and Ankara share few (if any) overlapping interests. The most fundamental divide is over Russia, but the two countries also disagree about the Syrian Kurds and, to a lesser extent, Iran.

As the war against Islamic State went on and tensions over the threat of non-state actors (Islamic State State for the United States and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party for Turkey) deepened, the U.S.-led coalition had to work around Turkey to begin combat operations in Syria and Iraq. The Turkish government, after protracted negotiations, did eventually allow for U.S. and allied aircraft to fly from Incirlik to support the war against Islamic State. However, during the intervening period, the United States increased funding for Muwaffaq Salti Air Base in Jordan. This initiative sought to expand the base to accommodate every type of U.S. combat aircraft, especially the large aircraft needed to sustain logistics. The base gives the United States a larger footprint near Iraq and Syria, obviating the need for flight operations out of Incirlik for future contingencies.

The Jordanian base joins Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, which hosts the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) a significant U.S. aircraft presence, along with Al Dharfa in the Emirates. For the United States, more is always better to ensure options in a crisis, because even close allies and partners can’t always be counted on to say yes when asked to host aircraft for combat operations. Thus, the United States could use the S-400 dispute to continue a process that is already underway —moving away from reliance on Turkey for basing access for non-NATO missions and instead making use of regional infrastructure already in place. This approach could minimize the fallout from the S-400 and F-35 issue, and has the added benefit of protecting American assets from a Turkish S-400.

Zooming Out: Undermining Burden-Sharing

The stage is set for a serious break in relations between the United States and Turkey, which requires thinking about how to mitigate any damage to American interests. The United States cannot control Turkish decision-making. If Ankara chooses to deepen cooperation with Russia after the S-400 is delivered, and actually enters into agreements for the co-production of a weapons system, U.S.-Turkish defense cooperation could be further curtailed. This would cause considerable damage to the Turkish defense industry, a cycle that could lead to an even further dependence on Moscow, or prompt a re-evaluation of Turkish decision-making and exploration about how to repair relations with Washington.

If Turkey chooses to downgrade ties with Washington in response to U.S. sanctions, or to do so indirectly by doubling down on ties with Russia, the United States has a myriad of options to mitigate the fallout. The reality is that NATO expansion has helped to ring the Black Sea with American allies. As a result, Turkey’s historic role within the alliance has shifted and its coveted geography is not as valuable as it was when it was the most important country along the eastern flank. Moreover, during the Cold War, Washington planned for basing uncertainties in order to make sure it could always mobilize for a major war in Europe. In 2019, the U.S. has the means to plan around Turkey for operations in Europe and the Middle East in ways that increase the American presence in Europe and sustain it in the Middle East.

Beyond basing access, the more serious implications of Turkey’s isolation within NATO have to do with the further eroding the concept of burden-sharing and undermining the ideal of near-total interoperability between allied militaries. NATO members aspire to “interoperability” to ensure that NATO’s newest members are weaned off of their legacy Soviet equipment and to try and standardize equipment so that allies can do things as simple as refuel one another’s tanks. As the aptly titled RAND study, Interoperability: A Continuing Challenge in Coalition Air Operations, notes, “Interoperability at the operational and tactical levels is where strategic/political interoperability and technological interoperability come together to help the NATO allies shape the environment, manage crises, and win wars.” This political commitment is intended to augment the collective capabilities of the alliance and to outfit militaries. Turkey’s purchase of an S-400 completely contradicts this concept. Worse, it poses a security risk to NATO’s future front-line fighter, the F-35. The real problem underlying looming break in U.S.-Turkish relations is the political disregard for the most basic aspect of collective defense — burden-sharing — and the responsibility each ally has to work towards the goal of interoperable systems. Russia has managed to use arms sales to its economic and political advantage with a willing partner that overlooks obvious security problems and disregards its shared responsibility of collective defense when making procurement choices. The outcome is, without question, a huge diplomatic win for Russia because the S-400 in Turkey challenges the fundamental principles of burden-sharing.

For Washington, the logistical problems can be managed through deft diplomacy with other NATO allies and funds allocated to build out alternative facilities. For Turkey, the potential repercussions could be limited, so long as Ankara stops at the S-400 purchase and continues talks with the United States about how to repair relations after sanctions are imposed and the F-35 held back. To be clear, this is a terrible place to be in. However, if Ankara chooses to deepen its partnership with Russia, bad could turn into grievous, as legacy defense cooperation with the United States could then be called into question. Most importantly, the Turkish-Russian entente further undermines Ankara’s position within NATO and, therefore, the very notion of collective defense and burden-sharing amongst the 29 member-states. This makes NATO weaker and is not in anyone’s interest.



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


Image: Department of Defense photo by D. Myles Cullen