The US and Turkey – one of Washington’s key Nato allies – appear to be on a collision course this summer.
Turkey insists it will go ahead with the purchase of an advanced Russian S-400 air defence system. The first missiles and their associated radars could start to be delivered in July.
The US is urging Ankara to re-consider. It is warning that if the deal goes ahead then Turkey will be cut out of the F-35 warplane programme – the advanced US aircraft that will equip many Nato air forces over the coming decade.
So this is a controversy that has security, strategic and industrial dimensions. It raises questions about Turkey’s reliability as a Nato partner and the diplomatic course that it is pursuing. And given its key geographical location on the alliance’s southern flank – not to mention its role in the Syrian crisis – Turkey is not a country that Nato can turn its back on.
Washington’s concerns about Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 stem from both practical and security considerations.
The S-400 is a generic name for a variety of air defence systems configured in slightly different ways. But whatever version Turkey is buying, the simple fact is that the Russian system cannot be easily incorporated into the wider Nato air-defence system in the region.
This matters because air defences – and we are talking here about defending against both manned aircraft and ballistic missiles – comprise a variety of radars and missiles, each tailored to dealing with particular kinds of threats at particular altitudes.
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So the whole is more than just the sum of the parts. Remove one crucial element from the mix by insisting upon a stand-alone system, and the overall defence is weakened.
Russia makes very good air defences. But installing a new system in a Nato member like Turkey is going to require trainers and on-the-ground support which raises all sorts of security concerns. What else might the Russians learn as they help to install and calibrate the weapons?
This is especially worrying for the Americans because Turkey is planning to deploy advanced US-built F-35 warplanes. Indeed, the first couple have already been handed over to Turkey in the US, where Turkish pilots have already been training on them.