Russian President Vladimir Putin is on the verge of a major diplomatic victory in his efforts to divide the NATO alliance. Delivery of the first elements of the Russian S-400 air defense system to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Washington’s correct decision to halt delivery of F-35 jets bound for Turkey in response may set off a chain of events that could even lead to Turkey’s withdrawal from the NATO alliance. It is not too late to think creatively and reverse the unraveling.
The current dispute can easily escalate. Russia has already offered Turkey the Su-35 as a possible replacement for the F-35. Turkey is widening the dispute by threatening once again to attack Kurdish units in Syria that have aided the West in its fight against ISIS. Key U.S. senators have urged President Donald Trump to sanction Turkey further under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. Turkey might retaliate by denying the U.S. use of airfields, radar facilities, ports and intelligence-gathering facilities. If Turkey wants to retaliate against American allies who support the U.S. position on the S-400, Turkey can easily open the flow of refugees to the north.
The fundamental American concern about protecting F-35 technology is sound and is shared by other members of the international F-35 consortium. The basic concerns are threefold.
First, if S-400 radars are able to continuously track the stealthy F-35 when both operate near each other in Turkey, Russia may be able to better identify F-35 signatures and reduce its stealth advantage.
Second, the F-35 is a flying computer. If it connects with the computers that operate the S-400, F-35 digital advantages may be compromised. If one country owns both systems, it will be difficult to keep those computers disconnected. Russian technicians assisting with the S-400 would certainly try to gain information on the F-35’s capabilities.
And third, if the Turkish S-400s are connected to NATO air defense radars, Russia would have an insider’s view of the intelligence systems designed to defeat it.
Other American partners like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and India are also pursuing S-400 purchases, so the consequences could be worldwide.
Differences over price and technology sharing led Turkey to spurn several U.S. offers to sell Ankara the Patriot system, opening the opportunity for Putin.
Much of the responsibility for this deadlock rests with Erdogan. He distrusts Washington for harboring Fethullah Gulen, who Erdogan believes orchestrated the 2016 coup attempt against him. He also distrusts his own Air Force and may even see the S-400 as protection against them.
Before this dispute escalates further, it is useful to remember that Turkey is a crucial NATO ally. It hosts U.S. forces in a strategic location and has the second-largest military in NATO. NATO is also important to Turkey if not to Erdogan. Its military forces are integrated into NATO’s equipment and force structure. A divorce would be catastrophic for both sides.
Technical fixes to make the S-400 sale less onerous have been considered, thus far to no avail.
In similar, difficult situations in the past, technical adjustments have made the difference. For example, both the Carter and Reagan administrations proposed the sale of F-15s and airborne warning and control systems respectively to Saudi Arabia. Those sales were consummated only after a series of technical adjustments were made to protect Israeli security. The F-15s were sold with strict range, mission and deployment limitations. Similar conditions governed the AWACS sale. Without those sales, the United States would have been hard-pressed to fight Desert Storm.
Given the stakes, it is worth one more attempt to see if a series of technical arrangements can ameliorate the negative consequences and even turn the tables on Putin. Other European members of the F-35 consortium might be enlisted to convince Turkey to agree. For example:
- Delivery of the F-35s might be delayed until all Russian S-400 technicians leave Turkey. They might be given a year to give the Turks some basic training.
- The deal might be NATO-ized by having multinational NATO crews to operate the S-400.
- The Turkish S-400 could be prohibited from operating whenever their F-35s fly within the S-400 radar range.
- The S-400s could remain disconnected from both the NATO air defense network and the F-35’s computers. This would make the S-400 a much less effective air defense system; but that would be part of the price Erdogan would need to pay.
- The U.S. could seek to further improve the conditions of a Patriot sale to Turkey, giving the Turks a better U.S. option.
- The Turks might agree to allow NATO to exploit the S-400 to better understand its capabilities and liabilities.
- If Turkey could agree to conditions like these, it still might be possible to avoid a termination of the F-35 sale and avoid a major rift within NATO.
Hans Binnendijk is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council. He managed the F-15 and AWACS sales to Saudi Arabia for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.