Why does it take ten months to deploy Turkey’s S-400s? - analysis

Speaking symbolically on the third anniversary of the 2016 attempted coup against him, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that eight planes had landed with parts of the S-400.

By
July 17, 2019 01:21
2 minute read.
Why does it take ten months to deploy Turkey’s S-400s? - analysis

First parts of a Russian S-400 missile defense system are unloaded from a Russian plane at Murted Airport, known as Akinci Air Base, near Ankara, Turkey, July 12, 2019.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Turkey’s political leadership is ecstatic amid its growing alliance with Russia and its spurning of the US by acquiring the Russian S-400 air defense system.

Speaking symbolically on the third anniversary of the 2016 attempted coup against him, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that eight planes had landed with parts of the S-400, and that with “God’s permission, they will have been installed in their sites by April 2020.”

But why does it take so long to deliver, unpack and deploy the system? There are already two launchers, a crane and other vehicles deployed with the shipments on the planes. The system also includes radars and warheads, and will require training to use it. But Turkish personnel were already supposed to have been in Russia since the end of May to learn about the system.
The trickle of details as to why it is taking so long may not be just because this is a complex air defense system. Ankara hasn’t acquired the system because it fears being attacked from the air. Turkey is already a NATO ally that is working closely with Russia, so all of the conceivable air powers that might threaten Turkey are ostensibly its ally also. And Turkey apparently isn’t going to put the S-400s in northern Syria to keep the Syrian regime away from areas that Turkey controls there.

The reality is more complex. The long process since 2017 of acquisition and now deployment is used as leverage over the US. Ankara knows that Washington wants to sanction it over acquiring the Russian system, but Turkey does not want those sanctions or to be pushed out of the F-35 program. The US has already tried to reduce Turkey’s role in that program by targeting Turkish personnel who were supposed to be in the US.

This is what the US calls “unwinding” Turkey from the program, and 10 months allows for a new negotiating period to unwind.

The first period was from 2017 until now, with the arrival of the first S-400 pieces. Now comes the pre-deployment stage, and then maybe a pro-operational stage. Maybe Turkey can successfully slow-play this high stakes game of Clausewitzian brinkmanship up until the next US election, when it hopes to have more leverage.

Ankara also has its sights set on Syria, and on moves by the US to backfill the US withdrawal. Turkey wants a “safe zone,” and it hopes that America will acquiesce to a Turkish military adventure that might even target Manbij or other areas where the US and its local Syrian Democratic Forces partners are located. Writing in The National Interest, Michael Rubin says that the US is trying to “appease the unappeasable” in discussing a safe zone with Turkey in northeast Syria.

The S-400 is part of the leverage of an Ankara policy that blends a military role in northern Syria and closer energy relations with Russia, with a willingness to call America’s bluff on sanctions over the S-400. The timer is now ticking – and April 2020 is the new alarm.


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