WASHINGTON — Turkey is assembling the first parts of the Russian S-400 anti-missile system, pushing its relationship with the Pentagon and NATO to a critical moment of truth.
The Pentagon reiterated Monday that it will cut Turkey out of the international program to develop and deploy the F-35 fighter, of which Turkey was an early participant. NATO officials also have denounced the decision for Turkey — a NATO nation — to purchase and deploy a Russian system explicitly designed to thwart the NATO alliance.
“The delivery of parts belonging to the system will continue in the coming days,” Turkey’s defense ministry said in a statement reported by the media on Friday. ”Once the system is completely ready, it will begin to be used in a way determined by the relevant authorities.”
The first parts were delivered to the Murted airbase outside the capital, Ankara, according to the defense ministry. Turkey has said it hopes to have the S-400 system operational by October.
Acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper spoke to his Turkish counterpart for 30 minutes on Friday about the S-400, but both sides pledged to keep the contents of the call private, Pentagon officials told reporters.
The Pentagon was to brief reporters on the situation on Friday. It twice scheduled briefings only to cancel. Officials said a response to S-400 activity by Turkey would be forthcoming.
Turkey is to purchase 100 F-35 fighters.
The Pentagon fears that sophisticated Russian S-400 anti-missile system radar will be able to pierce some of the technology that gives the F-35 protections and advantages in combat and on missions. For example, the S-400 missile system could gather technical data on the F-35 and pass that information to Moscow — either directly from Turkey or via weaknesses captured by the Russian software.
A prime example would be Turkey flying the F-35 in training against the Russian system — a clear opening on capabilities and vulnerabilities the Russian would glean.
Turkey had been given until July 31 to cease its purchase of the S-400 system. NATO refers to the system as the SA-21 Growler.
According to STRATOR, Russia’s S-400 “is arguably one of the best all-around strategic SAM systems in operation today. (And there is an even better replacement in development, in the form of the S-500.) Particular strengths of the S-300 and the follow-on S-400 series are their extended reach, their flexible ability to strike at different targets (primarily aircraft, but also cruise and ballistic missiles to a degree) and their sophisticated sensors, which Russia claims include some anti-stealth capability.”
Other nations are seeking or have purchased the S-400, including China, India and Saudi Arabia.
However, STRATFOR also notes the S-400 is good only “in the hands of competent and well-trained crews” and that “if an S-400 battalion is acting in isolation or is not backed up by other modern air defenses, it likely doesn’t have enough missiles to withstand a determined onslaught.”
Problematic is Turkey’s deep role in the F-35 program. Turkish firms make 937 parts for the F-35s, of which 400 are sole source — meaning they are the only supplier. Those parts range from landing gear to central fuselages.
In June, Pentagon officials said that alternative suppliers are already being located and that they do not anticipate major disruption to the F-35 program. The program will continue to use Turkish parts until mid-2020, they said.
The U.S. has unsuccessfully tried to convince Turkey to purchase the U.S. Patriot anti-missile system instead of the S-400.
This is the first time a NATO nation has purchased equipment from Russia. Turkey could face economic sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act if it goes ahead with the purchase.