ANKARA, Turkey — The West’s reluctance to transfer critical air defense technology to Turkey may be pushing the NATO ally further into the orbit of Russian-made weapons systems, particularly for the acquisition of the S-500 platform currently in development.
Turkey has shown interest in the American-made Patriot air defense system, and while the government in Ankara said it set no preconditions for such a deal, Washington has repeatedly pressured Turkey to not activate its Russian-made S-400 air defense systems.
In addition, Turkey has accused France of obstructing the former’s attempts to acquire the SAMP/T, an air defense system made by the European company Eurosam.
“Any Western reluctance to share technology for political reasons would lead us to look for alternative technologies in countries with which we do not have political problems,” a defense procurement official familiar with Turkey’s air defense efforts told Defense News. “Most exclusively including Russia.”
He declined to discuss specifics about the state of S-500 negotiations with Russia, but said: “All is going well as planned.”
Russia announced Dec. 28 that it will start preliminary tests of its latest air defense missile system, the S-500 Prometheus, in 2020. In May 2018, Russia conducted a surface-to-air missile test with the S-500.
The platform is expected to have a maximum firing range of 600 kilometers when targeting ballistic missiles and 500 kilometers for other aerial threats. The S-500 would be able to detect and simultaneously engage up to 10 ballistic hypersonic targets that are flying at a speed ranging from about 11,000 mph to 16,000 mph.
The S-500, which has a maximum range of 3,500 kilometers, is also expected to be able to track and destroy ballistic missiles. It’s being designed with for mobility, with launcher canisters mounted on the 10-wheel drive military truck chassis BAZ-69096.
“There is an understanding [in Ankara] to go as far as possible in earning Russian technology as long as our Western allies keep depriving us of similar technology,” a senior Turkish diplomat involved in security matters told Defense News. “And that includes the emerging S-500 system.”
Last year Turkey received, as part of a $2.5 billion deal, its first batch of the Russian S-400 system consisting of two batteries, despite concerns from NATO allies. In response, Washington suspended Turkey’s partnership in the U.S.-led, multinational Joint Strike Fighter program that builds the F-35 fighter jet. The U.S. asked Turkey not to activate the S-400 system, but Ankara remains keen to make the system operational this year.
“We did not buy it [the S-400s] to keep it in a warehouse,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavusşoğlu had said in response to American pressure.
In May, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said an S-500 deal was likely to come in the form of co-production.
In December, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said Ankara and Moscow were in talks for the acquisition of a second fleet of S-400s, noting that Turkey is seeking co-production, technology transfer and the right to export to third countries in any new S-400 deal.
Also last month, İsmail Demir, head of the Turkish Defence Industry Directorate, confirmed Ankara was still interested in buying the Patriot system.
Turkey also has been in talks with the Franco-Italian business Eurosam for co-production of the SAMP/T air defense system in partnership with Turkey’s state-controlled electronics specialist Aselsan and missile-maker Roketsan.
But Demir accused France on Jan. 7 of obstructing the SAMP/T effort. He said the French government has impeded progress on a potential deal ever since Turkey’s military incursion into northern Syria in October.
“We are at the stage of definition study now. France has a negative attitude for the next phase. It creates troubles to go one step further,” Demir said. “If this attitude continues, we will proceed with the other partner [Italy].”
Turkey and Eurosam signed in early 2018 a preliminary, 18-month deal to examine co-production of a national Turkish air defense system based on the SAMP/T.
Since the 2000s Turkey has been trying to build an indigenous long-range air defense system, but there’s ben a lack of progress. Only in October 2019 did Turkey’s first indigenous, low-altitude air defense system, Hisar-A, successfully passed field tests. The system, co-produced by Aselsan and Roketsan, will now come under serial production with a planned delivery in 2021.
Hisar-A provides protection against a multitude of airborne targets due to its vertical launch capability. The system is mounted on a self-propelled armored vehicle and can be fully autonomous by means of 3D radar, an electro-optic sensor suite and fire control. It’s to be used to protect military bases, ports, airports and mobile troops. The system targets fixed- and rotor-wing aircraft, drones, cruise missiles, and air-to-ground missiles.
Aselsan and Roketsan are also developing Hisar-O, the medium-altitude version. It’s expected to enter the Turkish military’s inventory in 2022.
Hisar-O’s operation invovles a ground station and three batteries, each of which has a sufficient amount of launchers, missiles, radars, command-and-control and communication systems, and other support equipment.
When combined, Hisar-A and Hisar-O will provide Turkey the ability to destroy threats at low and medium altitudes. The Hisar program involves the development and production of two types of ground systems and the missile itself, which is being designed to launch from a self-propelled system or an armored, wheeled vehicle.
Burak Ege Bekdil is a Turkey correspondent for Defense News. He has written for Hurriyet Daily News, and worked as Ankara bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswires and CNBC-e television. He is also a fellow at the Middle East Forum and regularly writes for the Middle East Quarterly and Gatestone Institute.