More thoughts on Turkey and Missile Defense Decision-Making

Turkey has pursued missile defense since 1996. Ankara has long feared the dual threat of the proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. As part of a broader effort to develop a defense against such threats, Turkey has ambitious plans to develop cruise missiles, drones, ballistic missiles, early warning satellites, and an indigenous missile defense system. These programs are intended to give the Turkish military greater flexibility to target asymmetric threats, like ballistic missiles and terror training camps, while also bolstering the country’s private defense industry. Yet, these plans take time. And, in the interim, Ankara has turned to co-production arrangements to help bolster its domestic industry and to provide it with stop-gap capabilities until its indigenous efforts fully materialize. Thus, it is within this context that one can piece together the reasons behind Turkey’s recent decision to purchase a Chinese missile defense system that will, in all likelihood, not be interoperable with a slew of sensors the United States has deployed as part of a European missile defense system for the NATO allies.

Procurement officials maintain that China’s CPIMEC has offered a complete co-production arrangement, to finalize the deal quickly, and agreed to provide Turkey with indirect offsets. Moreover, the HQ-9 was far cheaper than the United States’ Patriot, Europe’s Samp/T, and Russia’s S-300. Ankara hopes to leverage the experience it gains from co-producing the missile system to expedite the development of its indigenous missile defense systems. Yet, given the history of difficulties in developing missile defense systems, as well as the challenges posed by proliferation of cruise missiles and drones, Ankara may have made a bad decision for the following reasons:

– Difficulties with theater missile defense and the fact that the HQ-9 has never been tested in combat

– Not being able to take advantage US funded sensor deployments (I wrote about the cueing issue here)

Radar saturation and growing cruise missile and drone risk – I plan to write more on this, but in brief, I find the worry about the impending global drone wars to be nonsensical. There are a number of different bottlenecks that even a state like China will face as it seeks to bolster the global reach of its drones. Turkey and its neighbors are no exceptions. It is far more likely that the proliferation of drone technology will result in the greater use of drones on a local scale. Turkish officials, therefore, will have to account for Iran’s use of drones and how that could affect Turkish national security.

For one, drones are far more efficient at delivering chemical weapons and biological agents than ballistic missiles. Yet, what is not often written about is the way in which low cost drones could be used to saturate ballistic missile defenses. Thus, in the Turkish case, Iran – the unstated reason for Turkey’s interest in BMD (along with Syria) – could potentially use swarms of low cost drones operating on a local scale to overwhelm Turkey’s nascent ballistic missile defense systems. In turn, one has to then ask about why Ankara did not seek to procure a system that would have allowed for Ankara to have a truly layered missile defense system. If Ankara has chosen the Samp/T or the Patriot, Turkey would have been able to benefit from the EPAA’s sensors and future missile deployments. (Ankara could have done this and still kept with its military procurement policy.)

In addition, Turkey’s current missile defense plans do not account for the growing cruise missile risk. Iran, for example, also has a cruise missile program that could pose a threat to Turkey in the future. Moreover, there is a significant amount of technological overlap between drones and cruise missiles. In fact, Turkey’s growing interest in both platforms is a symptom of the growing salience of cruise missile technology for states in the region and beyond. As of now, I have seen no real plan to counter the cruise missile threat in Turkey, beyond simply repeating boiler plate (and incorrect) assertions that the HQ-9 will be an effective defense against such systems.

One such way to combat the cruise missile threat is for Turkey to bolster its own export controls, but, as I have indicated, Ankara has yet to prioritize such action.

Spending money on an industry Turkey will never be competitive in at the expense of other industries that Ankara could hope to compete in the future. In other words, diverting limited procurement funds for a system that will not economically benefit Ankara in the long run. For example, the HQ-9’s lesser price when compared to the other systems in the competition  “accounted for slightly less than 10% of the Turkish annual defense expenditure budget and some 25% of the funds set aside for the T-LORAMIDs project.” In short, price mattered when SSM made its decision.

However, in elevating price over interoperability, Ankara actually forfeited its ability to use US funded sensors that will be deployed as part of the EPAA. Thus, while HQ-9’s actual sticker price may been lower than the Samp/T or Patriot, the price over the life cycle of the system (which includes maintenance and the deployment of other sensors to bolster the system’s effectiveness) will have to be financed by Turkey alone. If Turkey had opted to piggyback on the largely US funded EPAA, than Ankara would have been able to free ride to some extent on the planned US funded network of sensors that will be deployed in Europe and elsewhere. As of now, it is unclear if the SSM factored these costs into its initial assessment about the HQ-9.

Difficulties exporting the system – Ankara appears to want to export the system, as part of its more ambitious effort to bolster its own defense industry through co-production arrangements and offset provisions with foreign military suppliers. But, one has to ask: Will Turkey ever become a major missile defense exporter? Can it compete with the United States, Europe, Russia, or China in such systems? I think the answer is no. And, if I am right, then one has to ask why Turkey sacrificed operational history and interoperability for a product it will never really be able to export. If I were the SSM, I would focus on areas in which its can be globally competitive in the future. One such area is drones, but, as I mentioned early, the proliferation of drone technology to states in the region (Ankara had expressed an interest in selling the Anka to Egypt before the recent coup) could actually pose a security threat to Turkey in the long run. In turn, I come back to my argument that Turkey should take steps to bolster its own export controls. But, again, this does not appear to be a priority at the moment.

In any case, Ankara will have to begin to address these issues in the coming future as it seeks to establish itself as an exporter of military equipment. As of now, it is unclear whether Turkey has fully thought through the implications of its long term strategy and the ways in which Ankara could be affected by the proliferation of the same technologies that it is now so eager to produce itself.

As always, if you have comments or criticisms please tweet @aaronstein1

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About aaronstein1

I am an Istanbul based PhD Candidate a King's College London.
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