Will the US-Turkey S-400 Crisis Constrain Pakistan?

On February 11, 2021, Ibrahim Kalin, Turkish Presidential Spokesperson, stated regarding the S-400 air defence systems deal with Russia that Turkey will not “retreat” on its procurement of the Russian-made systems. Earlier in January 2020, the same was stated by Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan that Turkey would move ahead with the S-400 systems deal and hold talks with Russia about acquiring the second battery of the S-400 systems. With the advent of a new administration in the United States (US) and the backdrop of the recently found strategic bonhomie of Turkey with Russia, it seems that the rift over the procurement of the Russian-made S-400 air defence systems between Turkey and the US is only going to drive the existing wedge in US-Turkish relations even deeper.

Current tensions in the US-Turkish relations over the S-400 deal are neither new nor simple. Following the downing of a Russian fighter jet by the Turkish forces in November 2015, which seriously damaged Russo-Turkish relations, rapprochement between the two countries began in July 2016. Thus, under the leadership of President Putin, the Russian Federation extended help to the government of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during the failed military coup. Given the nature of threats faced by Turkey (including from Iraq, Syria, Kurds and Islamist militants), along with the mutual interests (with Russia) in several geostrategic issues, security and defence sectors became significant areas of cooperation.  These areas still dictate the course of the Russo-Turkish bilateral relations.

Hence, negotiations began in Fall 2016 between Turkey and Russia over the S-400 systems. The deal was finally signed on December 29, 2017, costing Turkey US$ 2.5 billion. As per Sergei Chemezov, head of Russia’s Rostec, 45% of the payment was to be made by Turkey upfront, and the rest of the 55% to be paid off in the form of loans provided by Russia.

Subsequently, these developments attracted the attention and wrath of the US and its European allies. They alleged that the acquisition of the S-400 air defence system is against the rules of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), of which Turkey is a member, and is also not compatible with NATO’s military architecture.

Initially, the US addressed the issue verbally by warning the Turkish side of the consequences the latter would face if it went ahead with the S-400 deal with Russia. Other than the imposition of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) restrictions on Ankara, the US also warned Turkey that it would halt the sale of F-35 fighter jets to the country. Moreover, Washington alerted Ankara that it would drop the latter from the joint F-35 stealth fighter jet program altogether, costing Ankara billions of dollars.

These developments attracted the attention and wrath of the US and its European allies. They alleged that the acquisition of the S-400 air defence system is against the rules of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), of which Turkey is a member.

But despite warnings and threats from the US, Turkey went ahead with the procurement of the S-400 systems in July 2019. After the Turkish acquisition, the US dropped Turkey from its F-35 program. In October 2020, Ankara allegedly tested the missile system. Thus, Washington imposed sanctions against Ankara (adding to the prior sanctions imposed in 2019) under CAATSA in December 2020. There is currently a high chance that the US might impose more sanctions on Turkey if it persists in treading the same path.

It is important to note here that the existing tensions between Turkey and the US not only have implications for the two countries involved, but the rift also has far-reaching consequences for other countries, for example, Pakistan. In recent years, the Turkish indigenous military complex has made considerable progress. With the promotion of Turkey’s profile, its defence cooperation with Pakistan has increased as well. From upgrading Pakistani military hardware to the exchange of arms and ammunition made in Turkey, the bilateral defence cooperation has only increased over the years.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) data, from the year 2016-2019, Turkey was Pakistan’s 4th largest arms supplier. This might increase soon as Turkey completes orders from Pakistan that exceed US$ 3 billion, which include four MILGEM Ada-class corvettes and 30 T-129 Atak helicopters.

However, the CAATSA restrictions levied on Turkey due to its S-400 systems deal with Russia have direct consequences for the defence projects of Pakistan. The 30 T-129 Atak helicopters (worth US$ 1.5 billion) are powered by the CTS800 engine that the US-based Honeywell originally produced. Meanwhile, the LM-2500 gas turbines for powering Ada-class corvettes are built by the US company General Electric (GE). Turkey was locally manufacturing these items as Turkish firms were licensed by the US to do so. However, it will no longer be possible with the CAATSA restrictions on Turkey. This situation ultimately brings Pakistan’s defence projects on indefinite hold.

Moreover, this also raises concerns for Pakistan on another front as India signed a US$ 5 billion deal with Russia for S-400 air defence system batteries in October 2018. It is a bigger deal as compared to that of Turkey’s (US$ 2.5 billion). The Indian acquisition not only disturbs the strategic balance in the South Asian region but also makes Pakistan’s offensive and defensive capabilities vulnerable. It is especially true given an unpredictable government in India with such leaders at the helm of affairs that have trigger fingers.

The situation should serve as a learning experience for Pakistan, where it should start working on developing its indigenous military complex while simultaneously expanding its vendors’ inventory.

Although there is a high chance that India will be facing sanctions due to this procurement (which it should, provided the US remains firm on its principles). However, it is highly unlikely for India to be targeted with CAATSA restrictions keeping in mind the contemporary political situation surrounding the US-China rivalry and Indo-US strategic partnership. US and China entered a tough phase of their bilateral relationship during former President Trump’s era, which is likely to continue during President Biden’s tenure as well but in a much different and less aggressive form. India is an integral part of the US grand strategy surrounding China. For the foreseeable future, the US might ignore such Indian transgressions that are not directly impacting its national security or strategic interests in the short and medium terms (unlike Turkey’s case). It is evident from the US’ behaviour and responses to several Indian transgressions in recent years (For instance, the revocation of Article 350 and 35A of the Indian Constitution, several human rights violations in the country, curbing of minority rights, to name a few).

Furthermore, India might get a waiver from CAATSA restrictions in this regard because India plans to spend US$ 130 billion within the next decade on military modernisation. With the growing Indo-US strategic partnership, there is a huge probability that if India pledges most of that business to the US companies, the US might award a CAATSA waiver to India this time. Besides, India has also compromised on a few other vital projects (Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline) to cater to the US interests before, which India can leverage to get a waiver for once.

To round up the discussion, Pakistan is in an extremely peculiar position given the US-Turkish spat over the S-400 deal. Granting, Ankara has indicated willingness to return to negotiations with Washington to defuse the situation and normalise relations. However, currently, Pakistan is left with few options, including waiting it out (which is not feasible) and looking for alternate technology options or vendors (which will be costly and time-consuming). The situation should serve as a learning experience for Pakistan, where it should start working on developing its indigenous military complex while simultaneously expanding its vendors’ inventory. It will help Pakistan become less reliant on imports, earn from defence exports, provide it with more options to choose from, and become a more favourable option for other countries looking for collaboration and conducting joint defence projects.

Taimur Fahad Khan

Taimur Khan is working as a Research Associate at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI). His research focuses on non-traditional security issues and foreign policy analysis.

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