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What is S-400 and why does Turkey want it?

Roman Goncharenko
July 12, 2019

Turkey is set to become the first and so far the only NATO member to use Russia's advanced S-400 missile system. What is so special about this weaponry — and why is Turkey risking its US ties over it? DW has the details.

S-400 arrives in Syria
Russia has deployed S-400 systems to its bases in SyriaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Russian Defence Ministry

Russia has started delivering components of its S-400 missiles to Turkey despite harsh opposition from Washington. The US fears that Moscow could gain secret info about the latest US military plane, the F-35, if Turkey uses both the S-400 and the fifth-generation jet at the same time. The US has threatened sanctions, but Turkey has refused to budge.

The S-400 Triumph (known by NATO under the code name SA-21 Growler) is an anti-aircraft missile system that boasts a maximum range of 400 kilometers (250 miles) and can hit targets at an altitude of up to 27 kilometers. It was introduced in 2007. The system is mobile and includes the control hub and several missile launching elements, each of whom comprises of up to 12 launchers. Russia views the system as one of the key elements of its anti-aircraft defense, and its military has also deployed it to Crimea, Russia's Kaliningrad enclave, and Syria.

It was made by state-owned arms manufacturer Almaz-Antey, which had been targeted by EU and US sanctions over Russia's actions in Ukraine. The S-400 was developed to destroy fighter jets, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and drones. Russian media claims that S-400 is superior to its French or US-made rivals.

"The Russians and before them the Soviet Union were always leading in missile technology," UK military expert Richard Connolly at Birmingham University told DW's Russian service. "The reason for that was that the Americans and the West produced better aircraft."

S-400 is flexible and can be used with several types of rockets. It also has another major advantage outside the battlefield — it is more affordable. "S-400 is at least twice as cheap as the US system Patriot-2," Connolly told DW.

S-400 Triumph system deploying in Russia
Russia says its S-400 system can be ready to deploy in minutesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Malgavko

Signal to US

Turkey reportedly paid $2.5 billion (€2.2 billion) for the Russian system. However, Ankara's political considerations might have also played a role. For example, the Turkish government might have been motivated by the fact that S-400 has been developed as a countermeasure for American armaments. Connolly notes that during the 2016 coup attempt, Erdogan's presidential plane was followed by rebel F-16.

Moscow military expert Alexander Golz also believes that buying the Russian-made S-400 was a "purely political decision." However, Golz believes that it is a "signal to the US and other allies about Turkey sovereign approach to defense." 

Turkey is the second country in the world to get S-400 components delivered from Russia, after China. However, the excitement surrounding the sale to China was somewhat dampened by the incident in late 2017, when the ship delivering the missiles was caught up in the storm, causing some of the rockets to be damaged. Russia has since replaced them.

India has already signed a $5 billion contract and is awaiting delivery; several Gulf countries have also expressed interest.

Read more: The strengths and weaknesses of Russia's military

Russia 'smart enough' not to use S-400 in Syria

Military experts warn that the S-400, despite its numerous assets, has not yet had its baptism of fire.

"It has not been tested in a real, serious war situation," Siemon Wezeman of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) told DW. "The only one tested was the US 'Patriot' system in 1991, in the Gulf War."                    

Russia operates S-400 systems in Syria, where its forces support the regime of Bashar al-Assad. In April 2018, the US fired dozens of Tomahawk missiles against regime forces, but the Russian military refrained from using S-400 as a countermeasure, notes Golz. "The S-400 had the chance to show off its quality during the US Tomahawk strikes on Syria, but the Russian authorities were smart enough not to attempt it."

Turkey wants to make parts for S-400

The predecessors of the cutting-edge S-400 device, including Soviet-made S-300s, were designed to as a part of a comprehensive, nationwide anti-aircraft system. The S-400s have the advantage of being able to operate independently — precisely the feature that allows Turkey to use it without integrating it with NATO's defense network.

However, incorporating S-400 in a wider defensive complex would bring major advantages, and make it "much more effective," Siemon Wezeman says.

For example, the Russian army is protecting S-400 from enemy airstrikes with an additional medium-range defense system, the Pantsir S-1. It is still unclear if Turkey will also buy this system from Russia.

Next generation systems coming up

Still, Turkey is expecting to gain access to at least some of Russian technology. Several S-400 components are supposedly to be produced on Turkish soil.

"This might be symbolic," Golz told DW. "Three nuts and two bolts would be produced on Turkish territory."

According to unconfirmed information from Russian sources, Russia has rejected Turkey's request for electronic codes and settings of S-400, including its "friend-or-foe" recognition system.

S-400 is considered cutting-edge, but it will not stay that way for long. Russian weapons manufacturers are close to completing the S-500 system, dubbed "Prometheus," which is expected to be revealed in 2020. In June 2019, Russian Trade Minister Denis Manturov said that it's already fit for mass production. Official data says S-500 would have an even larger range, allowing it shoot down low-orbiting satellites. Turkey is also willing to manufacture the system jointly with Russia.

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