Last Thursday, Turkey’s Defense Minister, Ismet Yilmaz, responded to a written question from parliament by saying that Ankara does not plan to integrate its new missile defense system with NATO infrastructure. His written statement intimated that Turkey has already evaluated bids by various contractors and selected a missile defense platform designed by China Precision Machinery Import and Export Corp, rejecting bids by companies from NATO countries including Franco-Italian missile maker MBDA, France’s Thales, and American company Raytheon. Recent statements by presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin suggest that the decision of Yilmaz is not final and that there is support for NATO integration, which would require rejecting the Chinese bid, in the Turkish government. Still, the fact that the Defense Minister made such a statement might signal that the Chinese system is preferred by the Turkish military, a traditionally powerful institution in Turkish politics, which should be considered troubling to supporters of the trans-Atlantic alliance.
Because radar and target processing systems like are top secret, they cannot be integrated with the Chinese systems, costing Ankara about half of its radar capacity according to one defense official. This would make it easier for Tehran to employ countermeasures to thwart Turkey’s missile defense systems thereby undermining the ability of Turkey to deter Iran, the major missile power that it would need to defend itself from. Iran claims to be developing missiles with a limited radar cross-section, placing a premium on expansive radar coverage for Turkey’s national defense. These gaps allow Tehran the ability to hold Turkish assets hostage in any crisis situation in the Middle East.
The capability to destroy Turkish cities provides Tehran significant coercive leverage should the two countries stand on opposite sides of a dispute, a scenario that looks more and more likely every day. With sectarianism and conflict plaguing the region, Sunni Turkey and Shia Iran could be on a collision course in the near future, especially considering each nation’s interest in regional leadership. It would be extremely riskyfor Ankara to trust its security to a sub-par system.
Because of its proximity to the Middle East, Ankara often deals with a distinct set of security challenges in addition to the obligations that it fulfills as a part of NATO. This should not lead anyone to underestimate the significant role it plays. Turkey’s inclusion in the alliance was meant to create a bulwark against aggression by the Soviet Union across the Black Sea. The risks associated with a Soviet Union projection of power across the Black Sea , one that threatened the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean. Turkey holds the key to this influence, as its territory lies on the Bosporus Strait and the Dardanelles, which serve as the narrow pathways to the Aegean and broader Mediterranean.
This historical NATO strategic imperative has resurfaced in a major way in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. This act of aggression enables Russia to again exercise greater influence over the Black Sea. The Russian Navy expanded operational capacity of its Black Sea Fleet by building a second naval base on the Black Sea and reinforcing the fleet with 80 new warships. This trend suggests that now is not the time for fissures to emerge in NATO that could embolden further aggression by Moscow. While NATO has added Bulgaria and Romania to its Black Sea presence since the end of the Cold War, Moscow has shown a strong disregard for the post Cold War European order in recent months.
If Ankara continues actions that call into question its interest in the trans-Atlantic alliance, it could serve as a green light to further aggression by Moscow and heighten the growing tension between Eastern and Western Europe inside of NATO. Even though Turkish officials have previously denied that a decision to purchase Chinese systems would be part of a broader shift away from the West, it would be hard to fight that impression if Ankara presses forward with the purchase of NATO-incompatible Chinese systems. While it is understandable that Turkey wants to create an independent defense capability, the area of missile defense is perfectly tailored to the type of collective security that NATO provides.
The final decision on what system to deploy will likely be made after April 24, the centennial of the disputed genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire. In the meantime, decision makers in Ankara should consider that it has been NATO assets, namely Spanish, Dutch, German, and American Patriot batteries that have been protecting them from missile attacks from Syria while they make a decision about what missile defense technology to purchase. The wisest course of action to preserve the security of Turkish assets and the strategic balance of the multiple regions intersected by Turkey is to purchase a missile defense system that can be integrated with NATO’s existing BMD architecture.
Wes Rumbaugh is a Masters Candidate at the Missouri State University’s Department of Defense and Strategic Studies and the Van Cleave Fellow at the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.