S-400 Vs F-35: Turkish Defense Minister Hints Why They ‘Dumped’ World’s Best Warplanes For Russian AD Systems

Turkish Defense Minister Yasar Guler has said the S-400 surface-to-air missile systems that Turkey bought from Russia will remain in the army’s stockpile and be used as necessary.

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Yasar Guler was responding to the speculations on social media that Turkey had plans to use the S-400 air defense system that it had acquired from Russia.

Speaking on the NTV TV broadcast, Guler said, “The S-400 is a defensive weapon. If we are attacked, won’t we use the weapon in response? Our army knows on a professional level what to do and how to do it. If a situation that requires defensive weapons arises, then people who have questions about these weapons will see how the S-400 or our other air defense systems will be used.”

The clarification—which sounded almost like an assurance—comes as Ankara continues to look for a peaceful solution to the civil war in the country, which has essentially run into a stalemate. In the interview, the Turkish Defense Minister was purportedly referring to the Kurdish groups PKK/YPG, which control much of the country’s northeast and is seen by Turkey as a massive threat to its security.

Guler said some “friendly countries” were giving “every kind of support” to terrorists. “They even teach how to operate helicopters to terrorists. We are obliged to keep terrorists away from our territories.” The United States, which is a NATO member, is known to offer military support to these militant groups.

In response to criticism and opposition to purchasing S-400 missiles and why they were never used, Guler said they were for “defense.” When asked to elaborate, he emphasized: “If someone tries to attack us, they will see what S-400 or other defense systems do.” 

Turkey purchased four S-400 surface-to-air missile system divisions from Russia for US$2.5 billion. The Russian defense export agency, Rosoboronexport, declared in October 2019 that it had completed the delivery of the first division.

The S-400 Triumph air defense system offers layered defense as it can fire three kinds of missiles at short, medium, and long ranges. These missiles are a force to reckon with since they are integrated with launchers, multifunctional radar, autonomous detection and targeting systems, and anti-aircraft missile systems.

The S-400 can destroy 36 targets at once from a distance of 400 kilometers (248 miles) at a height of up to 30 kilometers. These targets include all kinds of aerial targets, ballistic and cruise missiles, and allegedly even hypersonic targets.

The Turkish forces lacked an air defense system in their arsenal that could match the sophisticated capabilities of a Russian S-400 Triumf when they decided to purchase these cutting-edge Russian air defense systems. Over time, there has been debate over whether the acquisition was worthwhile, given the price Ankara had to pay.

Turkey Chose Defense Over Offense, But Why?

When Turkey first announced that it wanted to purchase the S-400 from Russia, the NATO allies led by the United States opposed the arrangement. The US believed that the Russian-made system would jeopardize the F-35 program.

Ankara was a manufacturing partner in the F-35 program, and the US believed the S-400 gave Russia access to critical intelligence about the stealth aircraft. Turkey nevertheless signed the S-400 purchase agreement with Russia in 2017.

Even after the agreement was signed, the US and its NATO allies tried to dissuade Ankara from going through with it. The former Trump administration warned Turkey that sanctions would be imposed on the country under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) if it were to receive the Russian weapon system.

It appears Turkey was ready to ‘dump’ F35 stealth fighters for S-400 defense systems.

Following Ankara’s first acceptance of S-400s in 2019, the US sanctioned Turkey’s defense sector and removed Turkey from the F-35 program. Turkey essentially chose the defensive S-400 over the offensive fifth-generation F-35 stealth aircraft that would have catapulted it into the group of a select few with the capability. Analysts have often reckoned whether it was worth it, with some passing it off as a mere obsession.

Turkey’s S-400 air defense system has still not been reportedly operated six years after the country committed to purchase Russia’s S-400 system and four years after the US responded by forcing Ankara out of the F-35 program. Despite this, the Turkish government hasn’t pulled out of the agreement.

However, Turkey’s decision may have had a well-thought-out strategy, as evidenced by its unwavering commitment to the deal. The country had been pursuing air and missile defenses for more than ten years before signing the agreement. The announcement for the S-400 was made after several earlier tenders where Turkey was considering purchasing the French SAMP/T, the Chinese HQ-9, and the American Patriot.

s-400 Missile
File Image: S-400 Missile

EurAsian Times dives deep to make sense of Turkey’s choice to side with the Russian S-400 over the US Patriot and F-35 fighter jets.

Turkey needed a potent air defense system in the wake of political turmoil.

It began in 2015 when a patrolling F-16 of the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter jet that intruded into the Turkish Air Space. The aircraft was in its airspace merely for 17 seconds before it was shot down. This incident sparked a phase of hostilities between Turkey and Syria, which had so far maintained a cordial relationship.

Since both countries were significant stakeholders in Syria and the Black Sea region, Ankara knew that the relationships’ fractures had to be fixed. This incident was followed by the coup of 2016, which changed the political and security dynamics of Turkey forever.

On the fateful day of July 15, 2016, the rebel putschists in Turkey attempted to blow up the parliament building in Ankara using the US-origin F-16s operated by the Turkish Air Force. This was the first time the military attacked the city since 1402.

During the coup attempt, the two American-made F-16s piloted by the rebels nearly brought down Erdogan’s plane when it was en route to Istanbul. However, it is believed that they chose not to do so because Erdogan’s pilot had falsified the plane’s name to appear as a civilian one. The Turkish Parliament, however, was bombed by the remaining F-16s at least 11 times.

The Erdogan government’s armed forces rallied to take back control, but they were unable to bring down even one of the rogue jets. That day, Erdogan realized that his country had no defense weapon system against ‘its own’ American-made F-16s.

In the aftermath of the S-400 purchase, analysts noted that this could have been the primary trigger for Turkey pursuing the deal, as it realized it needed a non-NATO air defense system. Essentially, obtaining the S-400 may be seen as part of Erdogan’s plan to protect himself from another coup by strengthening his strategic ties with Russia and getting air defense systems designed to thwart any potential coup attempt.

Purchasing the Patriot system would be incompatible with Erdogan’s burgeoning alliance with Russia. Furthermore, because it is not typically designed to shoot down Western aircraft, it would not be valid for Erdogan’s coup-proofing of the country. 

However, the agreement had equally potent political triggers. Trouble had been brewing between Turkey and the US over the latter’s support for Kurdish militias in Syria. To add to that, a Turkish minister went so far as to accuse Washington of aiding the coup attempt. The only natural thing for the Erdogan government to do was to court Russia.

Moreover, some experts believe Turkey has shown unwavering commitment to the Russian S-400 for many other reasons. In a study released in December, Lisel Hintz, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, and David E. Banks, a professor at King’s College, London, contended that Erdogan has been unable to back down from the S-400 contract because of the pressures created domestically and the importance his administration, its supporters, and others in Turkey placed on it, despite its drawbacks.

Turkey has kept its non-operational S-400s around because they have taken on a symbolic significance for important constituencies of Erdogan’s AKP party — namely, Turkish far-left and far-right nationalist figures and former military leaders, Hintz and Banks wrote. By going ahead with the S-400 deal and keeping the system despite US opposition, the AKP benefited politically with left- and right-wing nationalist audiences in Turkey.

Turkey has had to go through its fair share of hardships by going the S-400 way. Not only has it lost its chance to field the f-35 stealth aircraft, but it has also struggled to obtain F-16s from the US, a decision that still hangs in the balance.