Turkey Looks to China on Air and Missile Defense?

The Turkish Defense Industry Executive Committee (SSIK), chaired by Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and including as its other members Minister of Defense Ismet Yilmaz and Chief of the Turkish General Staff General Necdet Ozel, announced on September 26 that Turkey will begin talks with the China Precision Machinery Export-Import Corporation (CPMIEC) on a long-range air and missile defense system (T-LORAMIDS) worth $3.44 billion, under Turkey’s specified budget of $4 billion.  CPMIEC’s FD-2000 (an export variant of the HQ-9 based on the Russian S-300) has been in competition with U.S. partners Raytheon and Lockheed Martin’s Patriot PAC-3, Russian Rosoboronexport’s S-400, and the Italian-French Eurosam’s SAMP/T Aster 30. Turkey plans to acquire up to four missile firing units in addition to 288 surface-to-air missiles/interceptors under a co-production agreement.  The Eurosam system came in second, the Patriot system third and Rosoboronexport was eliminated. Should the talks on an agreement with CPMIEC fail, Ankara intends to engage Eurosam. It is worth noting that in the 1990s Turkey worked with CPMIEC in the licensing and technology transfer to produce several short-range ballistic missile systems that it could not acquire from the United States and Europe.

Several newspaper accounts had appeared over the summer quoting unnamed Turkish Defense Ministry officials claiming that the Chinese system would be selected. Nevertheless, the choice still came as a surprise after many years during which a decision was delayed. Moreover, the T-LORAMIDS tender had been revised numerous times since it was first announced in 2007. Competitors were repeatedly pressed for the best price and maximum technology transfer and co-production value, an emphasis for Turkish defense acquisition since 1985, but more aggressively pursued by the current government. 

Turkey currently operates the Cold War-era U.S.-origin Nike-Hercules (MIM-14) system for its long-range air defense.  To augment Turkey’s air and missile capabilities in the lead up to the Iraq War of 2003, the Netherlands deployed under NATO command three Patriot batteries to Turkey.  In November 2012, Turkey again requested that NATO contribute to its air defense as a show of alliance solidarity against Syrian aggression, and the United States, Germany and the Netherlands deployed under NATO command a total of six Patriot air and missile defense batteries to southeastern Turkey, which remain operational.  Turkey is also defended under the NATO ballistic missile defense system for the protection of NATO European territory, populations and forces as agreed at the Lisbon Summit in 2010.  In addition, since late 2011, Turkey has hosted an advanced U.S.-origin AN/TPY-2 missile defense radar in support of the NATO mission.

Q1: Why did Turkey select the Chinese company?

A1: On October 1, Turkish Defense Minister Yilmaz explained that the decision was made because “the Chinese gave us the best price.” He added “We had asked for co-production and a technology transfer. If other countries cannot guarantee us that, then we will turn to ones that can.” The following day, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu echoed his colleague by saying that the Chinese offer had met Turkey's primary demands of price and co-production and commented “If only the American and European system makers offered better conditions, we could choose them.” The long-serving Under Secretary for Defense Industry Murad Bayar followed up with a press conference on the same day in which he said that the three reasons behind the choice were satisfaction of operational needs, the opportunity for over 50 percent local co-production of missile parts and the overall cost.  Bayar also noted that the agreement could be signed in six months and that the system would be delivered in four years.

Speaking on Turkish television on October 3, Prime Minister Erdogan, who chaired the SSIK meeting where the decision was made, put his public weight behind the choice. He said, “China gave the most attractive and lowest price bid. In addition, China also agreed to co-production.  The other countries did not agree to co-production.  For this reason, we rejected the other countries.” After noting with approval the fact that the Chinese bid included the earliest delivery date, Erdogan said, “along with our Chief of Staff and Defense Minister, we agreed that China would be best for this job.”

Q2: Will the system be NATO compatible?

A2: The Wall Street Journal reported on September 30 that NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen had responded to a question about whether Turkey’s purchase of the Chinese system would challenge the NATO Connected Forces initiative agreed to at the Chicago Summit in 2012 by saying “All governments take those requirements seriously.”

Preliminary analysis combined with the reaction of a number of unnamed NATO and U.S officials quoted in the press suggest that this system would not be fully interoperable with NATO’s Active Layered Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence (ALTBMD) architecture because Turkey’s allies would make the political decision not to allow full integration. (Had it not been eliminated, the Russian system would have faced the same obstacle.)  The sharing of data is technologically possible. However, there would be additional costs involved in the development of hardware and software not currently priced into the deal and full integration would ultimately be subject to a political decision, which would take into account the potential risk of Chinese infiltration or exfiltration of data. 

Turkey’s acquisition of the Chinese system would also complicate training and doctrine with NATO allies.  The Turkish Air Force, which will operate the system, will need to receive training on its operation, maintenance, and employment from the Chinese and would consequently derive no benefit from the available expertise of the American, German, Dutch, Italian and French militaries with their advanced employment of air and missile defense systems.  Leaving aside the other factors, NATO allies are unfamiliar with the Chinese system. Moreover, Turkey would also need to provide data on the capabilities of the Chinese system to NATO allies to allow for any future joint operations. 

Bayar used his press conference to discredit arguments relating to complications with NATO allies. “As part of this program, a Turkish defense company will be tasked with integrating the air defense system into a network operated by the Turkish Air Force. That integration will mean integration with NATO assets too since the Turkish system is fully integrated with the NATO system.” He noted that former Eastern Bloc members of NATO continued to operate Soviet systems acquired in the Cold War without integration problems. Arguing that there was “no criteria that NATO member nations must only buy weapons from NATO countries,” Bayar referred to Greece’s purchase of the S-300 air and missile defense system from Russia.

Erdogan used similar arguments. “What NATO has said is not based on facts. There are Russian missiles in NATO countries.  We have evidence that there are seven or eight countries whose military forces have Russian missiles…There is no stipulation that you cannot buy weapons or that you cannot enter into co-production outside of NATO.” Noting that Turkey had performed military exercises with China, Erdogan said that the deal would help Turkey close “the technology gap” which it had to solve. Erdogan continued “If we do this, our deterrence capability will be enhanced.  This is a symbol of our independence.”

Q3: What are the implications for U.S.-Turkish Relations?

A3: The Turkish decision was privately questioned by senior U.S. officials during talks with their Turkish counterparts on the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York. Washington’s unhappiness with the deal was then publicly confirmed by State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki on September 30. She said  “[W]e, of course, have conveyed our serious concerns about the Turkish Government’s contract discussions with a U.S. sanctioned company for a missile defense system that will not be interoperable with NATO systems or collective defense capabilities. Our discussions will continue.”  On October 1, U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Frank Ricciardone commented: “We are concerned about that [Chinese] company, and its role as a nuclear weapons technology proliferator in the world.”

It may be significant that U.S. concerns about CPMIEC, which, along with its subsidiaries, have been sanctioned multiple times by the United States for violations of the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act and other U.S. laws since 2003, were publicly aired only after the Turkish decision. Consequently, it is unclear whether the Turkish government - or even the U.S. administration - had connected the dots on the additional complication that the choice of CPMIEC would create. However, Ankara was surely aware of the possibility that the decision would be perceived by Washington as a negative signal and thus exacerbate current difficulties in the U.S.-Turkish relationship.

There has undoubtedly been some deterioration in the previously close relationship between the Turkish Prime Minister and U.S. President Barack Obama since their two meetings at the White House on May 16 of this year. Erdogan’s disappointment at the continuing unwillingness of Obama to engage forcefully in the Syrian crisis has been deepened by his sanctioning of the Russia-brokered deal with the Assad regime on its chemical weapons instead of military action. The two sides have also publicly disagreed on the reaction to the military overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and the Turkish government’s reaction to the Gezi Park protests.  The absence of a bilateral meeting between the two leaders at the recent St. Petersburg G-20 meeting testified to a possible chill in the relationship and it remains to be seen how Washington will choose to react to Ankara’s Chinese gambit.

As they consider the appropriate response, NATO and U.S. officials are pondering the significance of remarks by Turkish officials suggesting that the projected deal may not ultimately happen. On September 28, for example, Turkish President Abdullah Gul commented while still in New York: “That purchase is not definite. There is a shortlist, and China is at the top of it… These are multi-dimensional issues, there are technical and economic dimensions and on the other hand there is an alliance dimension. These are being evaluated.” On October 2, Foreign Minister Davutoglu said on Turkish TV that this was “not a final choice.” For his part, NATO Secretary General Rasmussen commented that the deal was “not yet done.”

Bulent Aliriza is a senior associate and director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Samuel J. Brannen is senior fellow with the CSIS International Security Program.

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Bulent Aliriza
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program

Samuel J. Brannen