Turkey eyes new defence partnership with Russia but risks remain high

Purchasing Russian fighter aircraft would involve a massive and high-cost reorganisation of its air force, doctrines, training and supply network.
Saturday 14/09/2019
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan inspect a Sukhoi Su-57 fifth-generation fighter jet during the MAKS-2019 International Aviation and Space Salon in Zhukovsky outside Moscow, August 27.  (Reuters)
A break from the past. Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan inspect a Sukhoi Su-57 fifth-generation fighter jet during the MAKS-2019 International Aviation and Space Salon in Zhukovsky outside Moscow, August 27.

DUBAI - “Yes, you can buy it,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said after a short pause to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who, while inspecting an Su-57 during a visit to MAKS-2019, Russia’s leading aerospace trade show, quipped whether the stealth fighter jet was for sale.

Erdogan later said “We didn’t come here for nothing” when asked how serious he was about purchasing Russian hardware, such as the Su-57 or Su-35 aircraft.

Turkey’s growing ties with Russia are a break from the past. Turkey and Russia fought numerous wars as imperialist powers through the 1700s and 1800s that were to set the tone for the century ahead. When Turkey joined NATO in 1952, the Cold War between the Western world and the Soviet Union was pressing ahead at full power and Turkey took a front-line role.

Today, as Turkey takes delivery of the Russia-made S-400 ballistic missile defence system and finds itself at loggerheads with its traditional ally, the United States, over the purchase, Ankara is telling counterparts in Moscow of its desire to broaden defence industrial cooperation.

Since May, the United States has effectively suspended Turkey from the F-35 programme over the S-400 purchase and a “final decision” is expected on Turkey’s expulsion from the programme shortly. Turkish pilots have had their F-35 training halted and Turkish industry producing components for the aircraft remain in limbo about as to where the dispute ends.

The United States said the only way back into the F-35 programme for Turkey is the removal of the S-400 systems, for which Ankara has agreed to pay $2 billion.

Washington says the S-400, which is incompatible with NATO systems, poses severe risks to the F-35 but there are reports that the Russians are pitching additional S-400 systems to Turkey, which is no longer able to purchase the US-made Patriot systems alternative.

It appears unlikely the United States would allow Turkey to take delivery for any F-35 aircraft, of which 100 had been ordered by Ankara. The years ahead would have likely seen additional purchases of the F-35 by Turkey.

It remains unclear where Turkey’s industrial participation in the F-35 programme is left but the logical expectation is that will be culled.

For fighter aircraft needs, then, Turkey may have no choice but to turn to Russia for fifth-generation aircraft until it can produce its own, if such an ambitious goal is able to materialise.

The struggles of the United States, Russia and China with their attempts at fifth-generation aircraft technology underline the inherent complexities and high costs involved with such programmes.

The Su-57, a single-seat, twin-engine multirole aircraft equipped with advanced avionics and high-precision weapons, is Russia’s fifth-generation stealth air superiority fighter. While an Su-57 aircraft may carry a unit cost less than half the F-35’s approximately $100 million price tag, the two aircraft are designed for different purposes — an Su-57 is not a true alternative to the F-35.

Despite news that Sukhoi has begun mass production of the Su-57, industry experts said the aircraft — years behind schedule — suffers from serious issues related to avionics and its engine.

Ankara is hoping to build its own fifth-generation fighter, known as the TF-X, in collaboration with the United Kingdom’s BAE Systems. In addition to offering the Su-35 and Su-57 aircraft, Moscow has expressed its interest in supporting Turkey’s TF-X with Russian engines and for electronic warfare.

The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), enacted by the United States in 2017, could mean Ankara is faced with future sanctions for significant purchases of military equipment from Russia, which would jeopardise its long-standing defence cooperation with the United States, cutting access to key technologies and technical assistance.

Turkey spends approximately $20 billion on defence annually and, while it has a defence industry of growing sophistication at home, its reliance on US technology assistance is vast. For this reason, it is generally thought that Turkey is unlikely to pursue defence industrial cooperation with Russia to the extent it comes at the cost of cutting strategic access to American technologies and expertise.

On the other hand, Russia could offer, as it apparently did with the S-400, better value for the money, technology transfer and significant stakes in programmes with export potential to Turkey. As the United States displaces Russia in its key traditional defence export markets such as India, Egypt and Algeria, among others, Moscow feels it needs to find new customers for strategic as well as economic reasons and Turkey is significant in this context. Last year, Russia, traditionally the world’s second-largest arms supplier, saw defence exports total approximately $20 billion.

The risks for Turkey are high. Purchasing Russian fighter aircraft would involve a massive and high-cost reorganisation of its air force, doctrines, training and supply network.

Turkey’s NATO membership could also be on the line if it reorients towards a defence strategy that while prioritising self-reliance rebalances with Russian and Chinese technologies because of the broader strategic realignment that would entail.

If CAATSA goes into effect, Turkey could dramatically find its negotiating position weakened with both the United States and Russia together with its military development and national industries that support it.

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