Harry Parkhouse contributed to this post.
The Turkish government has – shocking the U.S. and its NATO allies – recently announced that it has chosen the Chinese defense company China Precision Machinery Export-Import Group (CPMIEC) over NATO nation-owned competitors for its long-range air and missile defense system. Facing disapproval over its choice, Turkey has pointed to other NATO allies with non-NATO weapons systems. Yet, while such claims are factual, the circumstances by which these defense systems were attained are drastically different and only serve to highlight just how unusual, and worrisome, Turkey’s decision was.
To be sure, the Chinese bid has its advantages. First and foremost cost, the CPMIEC underbid its competitors by $1 billion. Secondly, the bid includes generous technology transfers to Turkey – including the construction of a new technology park next to Turkey’s Sabiha Gökçen International Airport in Istanbul. Third, China does not care about the domestic politics of countries it sells weapons to, certainly a consideration for Turkey at a time when its policies are being criticized as increasingly authoritarian and sectarian.
But the deal also has its drawbacks. The Chinese HQ-9 system will be incompatible with NATO’s missile defense shield or early warning radars already deployed in Turkey. Effective anti-aircraft and missile defense requires accurate missiles and far-reaching, precise radars to identify incoming targets. By choosing the HQ-9 instead of the NATO-compatible Patriot or Aster 30 Samp/T, Turkey is depriving itself of one half of that equation. It will not be able to take advantage of NATO early warning radars already deployed in Turkey or the NATO missile defense shield, hampering its own efforts to build a seamless, multi-layered missile defense system. Instead Turkey, in the words of the Centre for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), will be left “half-blind with a good gun.”
Ankara has claimed that this objection is solely “technical” and that the system could be made inter-operational with NATO systems. However, the United States and NATO reject potential efforts to do so, as they would create the risk of China being able to access NATO infrastructure and data. Moreover, having two ballistic missile defense systems with different software for differentiating between friend and foe will also create the risk of friendly fire incidents in certain flight corridors. On top of these concerns: the Chinese HQ-9 system has never been tested in combat.
In addition to defense concerns, the United States is particularly troubled by Turkey’s choice as CPMIEC is under U.S. sanctions due to accusations of illicit arms and missile technology sales to Iran and Pakistan. U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Frank Ricciardone said that while “this is a commercial decision [and] Turkey’s sovereign right” the United States was “very concerned about the prospective deal with the sanctioned Chinese firm.”
In defending his government’s controversial choice, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan replied that, “many NATO member states have Russian weapons in their inventories. If NATO is so sensitive about the issue it would remove the weapons from Russia in NATO’s own inventory.” Similarly, President Gül noted that “these kinds [of military equipment] also exist in other NATO member countries,” particularly Greece, who has the Russian S-300 PMU1 system.
Russian defense company Rosoboronexport was also in the running for Turkey’s defense contract with the S-300 system, which dates back to 1979, with the possibility of negotiating for the upgraded S-400 system, which has been in operation since 2007 but has yet to be exported anywhere outside of Russia.
While Greece does own two S-300 batteries, located on the island of Crete, they were obtained under drastically different circumstances than Turkey’s CPMIEC bid. In 1997, Greek Cyprus, which is not a NATO member, announced it would obtain the Russian-made S-300 system. Turkey responded by threatening either a pre-emptive attack to prevent the missiles from being deployed on Cyprus or outright war in response to their installation. Tensions ratcheted up as both sides made preparations for a seemingly eminent military conflict, which was only avoided by a face-saving deal with the Greek government. To allow Greek Cyprus to avoid the impression that it was caving to Turkish demands and to appease Russia by allowing it to still benefit from the transaction, the S-300s were sent to Greece and placed on Crete, while still technically owned by the Greek Cypriot government.
While there was never any real possibility of the S-300s being transferred back to Cyprus, the Greek Cypriot government retained ownership over the missile batteries until 2007, when they were fully transferred to Greek ownership. However, the bulk of Greece’s long-range air-defense system comes from 6 Patriot missile batteries with 1,400 missiles, compared to the 2 S-300 batteries with 96 missiles. And the Russian-built system would never have entered Greece’s arsenal, if it were not for Turkey’s protestations.
There are also two NATO members that possess S-300s – Bulgaria and Slovakia. However, they also are not analogous to Turkey’s Chinese purchase. Both are former members of the Warsaw Pact who acquired their Russian defense systems before joining NATO in 2004.
Turkey’s decision to choose the Chinese HQ-9 is, thus, without precedent. Without a good explanation of how this deal furthers its security within the NATO framework, Ankara’s choice can be viewed, according to Turkish scholar Serhat Güvenç, as an extension and expression of Turkey’s current frustration with its NATO allies over their inaction in Syria, “an attempt to put on a brave face and to show that Turkey can take decisions independently” of its allies. Turkish officials have yet to close the deal, saying that Turkey would be open to continue negotiations if U.S. and European firms offered better conditions – namely, providing for greater co-production and technology transfer. It is also rumored that Turkey will reissue its order for two Lockheed Martin F-35 joint strike fighters that was suspending earlier this year, a gesture that could be intended to soothe tensions created by the Chinese deal. This is just one example where American policymakers would be well-served by moving, as a recent report by the BPC’s Turkey Initiative has argued, from rhetoric to reality. By openly discussing its concerns with Ankara, but also realizing that lavishing praise will not be enough to earn cooperation, Washington can try to move the relationship back onto a more constructive track.