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[ANALYSIS] Will Erdoğan take a step back on the S-400s?

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Fatih Yurtsever*

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had bilateral meetings with the US president as well as the Italian and French leaders while in Rome for the G-20 Summit. Erdoğan stated at the end of the session that positive steps can be taken among Turkey, Italy and France regarding procurement of the SAMP/T ground-based air and missile defense system. Erdoğan’s remarks surprised those who’ve been paying close attention to his meetings and statements in the last month.

In an interview with American broadcaster CBS News aired on Sept. 24, President Erdoğan was asked about Turkey’s purchase of a second package of S-400 air defense missiles from the Russian Federation. “No one can interfere with what kind of defense systems we buy from which country. No one can interfere with this. Only we make these decisions,” he said.

Erdoğan told journalists following his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sept. 29: “Our process on the S-400 procurement continues. Of course, we covered the subject of S-400s in detail at this useful meeting. We talked about how we would take it to the next level. We had the opportunity to talk about what steps we will take in the production of aircraft engines, what steps we will take regarding warplanes, and we had the opportunity to talk about them in detail.”

So why did Erdoğan bring up the SAMP/T despite the fact that it was not on the agenda at the G-20 summit? How can we not interpret Erdoğan’s shift in stance in terms of the future of the S-400 system?

Since the early 2000s, Turkey has accelerated its procurement efforts to have an air defense system to counter its region’s growing air and missile threats. China’s offer for the FD-2000 was chosen as the winner in a September 2013 tender, surprising both the United States and NATO. The Chinese offer was around $3.44 billion, and it was followed by the SAMP/T and Patriot offers of $4.4 billion and $4.6 billion, respectively.

The Turkish Long-Range Air and Missile Defense System (T-LORAMIDS) tender, according to the Presidency of the Defense Industry (SSB), was an attempt to procure an off-the-shelf system to meet Turkey’s requirements until it developed its own indigenous long-range air defense system. Co-production and domestic industry involvement were not high on Turkey’s priority list. However, contract negotiations with China, which began at the end of 2013, were called off in November 2015 due to disagreements over technology transfer and co-production. As a result, Turkey announced that it would prioritize the development of its indigenous system: The T-LORAMIDS tender was canceled.

Turkey signed a memorandum of understanding with Italy and France in 2017 to expand cooperation on joint production of air and missile defense systems. In the following month, during President Erdoğan’s visit to France, the project definition document was signed between the France-Italy partnership, Eurosam, and leading Turkish defense companies Aselsan and Roketsan. The process, however, was halted due to political tensions between Turkey and France. Last year, Bloomberg reported that President Erdoğan requested from French President Emmanuel Macron in October 2020 that he finalize his objection to the joint production of Eurosam SAMP/T air defense systems. Moreover, according to an anonymous Elysée Palace official, Macron’s response to Erdoğan was that “Turkey’s objectives in Syria should be clarified.”

France’s relations with Turkey have deteriorated further due to France’s arms supply agreements with Greece. There is no indication that France’s policy toward Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean or other areas of contention with Turkey has changed recently. France took part in the NEMESIS-2021 exercise, which was hosted by southern Cyprus and aimed to defend east Med oil and gas platforms. Therefore, in terms of realpolitik, the sale of the SAMP-T to Turkey appears implausible under these circumstances.

However, if Turkey takes some steps, the result may change. Turkey did not object to the NATO defense ministers meeting’s new plan to deter Russia. NATO will increase its presence in terms of naval assets in the Black Sea as part of this plan. Before embarking on the Black Sea deployment, the USS Mount Whitney, the 6th Fleet’s flagship, made a port visit to Istanbul. Adm. Eugene H. Black, 6th Fleet commander, hosted a reception on the ship and held a press conference. Black emphasized the importance of cooperation and joint action between Turkey and the United States as NATO allies, stating that Turkey is an essential member of NATO.

Simultaneous with this visit, SkyNews Arabia reported that the S-400s would be deployed to İncirlik Air Base in southern Turkey. The news was later denied by the Turkish Ministry of Defense. Presidential spokesman İbrahim Kalın said the statements made by the authorities regarding the S-400s should be respected. If we evaluate the developments from an analytical and holistic perspective, the Sept. 29 meeting with Putin was not successful from Erdoğan’s point of view. The US stance on the S-400s is unambiguous. The US does not want a disagreement within NATO.

As a result, the most logical way to compensate France for economic losses incurred due to the AUKUS agreement and to provide Turkey with an option for the S-400s is to sell the SAMP-T to Turkey. Thus, Turkey will be able to integrate the SAMP-T into the NATO air defense architecture. Besides, Turkey will have the opportunity to deploy the naval version of the SAMP-T to the TF-2000 air defense destroyer. After entering service fitted with the naval version of SAMP-T, TF-2000 air defense destroyers can support NATO Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD) efforts in the Black Sea.

However, Turkey is expected to take firm steps. First of all, Turkish territory must be cleared of S-400s. Although it was denied, as reported by SkyNews Arabia, Turkish and American experts are trying to find a common way out on this issue. Thanks to the report, they had the opportunity to see the reactions from Russia.

Increasing natural gas prices have brought eastern Mediterranean gas to the agenda again as an alternative option for Europe. Turkey may take a step to improve relations with France by not raising objections for the time being to drilling by French company Total.

As a result, the US will not change its attitude towards Turkey unless concrete steps are taken in the near term. The most significant example of the US attitude is that Turkey is not invited to the Summit for Democracy. That is because the political balance system that Erdoğan established between Russia and the United States has collapsed. Therefore, there is no other reasonable option left for Erdoğan at the table except to give up on the S-400s.

* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.

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