Acquisition of S-400 Air Defense Systems by Turkey and Security Implications for Armenia

By Grigor Hakobyan

Summary:

Russia recently supplied Turkey with S-400 air defense systems which has raised many questions in the region and the world at large considering that Turkey is a NATO member that has defied American warnings not to proceed with this deal. United States offered Turkey its equivalent air defense system: MIM-104 Patriot. As a result of such defiance United States removed Turkey from the F-35 development program and stopped training Turkish pilots in the United States. According to some Turkish sources, one of the S-400 air defense regiments is planned to be stationed on the border with Armenia while the other one will be positioned somewhere near Ankara.

Stationing of S-400 air defense regiment next to Armenia is capable of altering Armenia’s security calculations as it relates to countering threats originating from Nakhijevan and the functioning of a number of air bases in Armenia, including the Russian patrol airwing at the Erebuni airbase near Yerevan. What counter measures should Armenia consider to address the threat emanating from Turkey-based S-400 air defense system and exactly what are the security implications that need to be addressed by Armenia’s air force?

Background:

In brief, Russian S-400 air defense system also known as “Triumph” is relatively modern and capable of tracking and destroying multiple targets in the air ranging from combat aircrafts, attack helicopters, some ballistic missiles and drones. Depending on the type of radars and surface-to-air missiles used, the S-400 is capable of covering airspace within the 200km-400km radius. However, it is not exactly effective for fighting against drone swarms and cruise missiles. As such Russia is quickly developing new S-500 air defense system which is more capable than S-400 in taking on drones and cruise missiles in addition to combat aircrafts and helicopters. The new S-500 air and missile defense systems are expected to be officially introduced to Russian armed forces within next few years.

Considering that nobody is planning to attack Turkey any time soon and no one has ever threatened to do so any time in the future the Turkish acquisition of Russian made S-400 air defense systems came as a surprise to many political observers in the U.S. and its fellow partners in NATO.  Some of them also began to wonder whether Turkish defiance of American warnings not to proceed with this acquisition is an indication of some sort of a regional realignment by Turkey in its attempts to reasserts itself in the region by reducing its reliance on U.S.A./NATO security umbrella and possibly moving out of NATO altogether. Russian pundits were quick to praise a closer security cooperation with Turkey and saw a possible opening to weaken the U.S./NATO influence in the region.

Analysis:

From geopolitical perspective, Turkey needs US/NATO and NATO/US need Turkey, therefore it is least likely for Turkey to leave NATO or be kicked out from NATO for defying U.S. demands and jeopardizing U.S. interests in the region for any foreseeable future. Furthermore, two regiments of S-400 are not sufficient to cover the entire Turkish airspace, therefore, considering the fact that one of the regiments will be based near Ankara implies that in most likelihood Erdogan is concerned for his own safety considering that the Turkish air force took active part in coup d’état against him several years ago which in turn prompted Erdogan’s government to carry out purges against the Turkish military establishment and different branches of its armed forces. Moreover, Turkey needs U.S./NATO nuclear umbrella against Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia at least up to a point when Turkey develops its own nuclear deterrence capabilities.

As far as Russian-Turkish military technical cooperation is concerned the Russian leadership is jeopardizing its own long-term security by focusing on short-term financial gains that it intends to acquire by offering Turkey a range of modern weapon systems such as S-400 and recently proposed Su-34/35 and Su-57 combat aircrafts. It is probably one of many ways that the Russian leadership is digging its own grave by empowering its long-term opponent in the region unless its long-term goal is to merge with Turkey, Azerbaijan and other countries in Central Asia under misguided ideology of Eurasianism.

As mentioned previously the second S-400 air defense regiment is expected to be stationed on the border with Armenia. Once stationed the presence of such modern air defense system so close to Yerevan, Zvartnots airport and Erebuni airbase is expected to have security implications for Armenia’s air force and by extension may threaten the operation of the civil aviation in Armenia in times of geopolitical tensions or war with Azerbaijan. Although its exact location for stationing has not been disclosed yet it will be safe to assume that it will be positioned very close to Nakhijevan (an Azerbaijani-controlled exclave with an area of around 2,000 sq. mi.) to deter Armenia from utilizing its air force in time of war with Azerbaijan, where Nakhijevan is most likely to be utilized as one of the sources for Azerbaijani aggression against Armenia.

Furthermore, in case if Turkey decides to utilize its S-400 air defense system against Armenian air force in time of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nakhijevan airspace, it is not clear exactly what the Russian or NATO response would be or how will Armenian air force respond in return. Thus, it will be an understatement to say that the stakes are high for all regional and global players and therefore, another war between Armenia and Azerbaijan is not necessarily in the best interests of any party involved. Concurrently, it doesn’t mean that Ilham Aliyer will not engage in a war with Armenia to shore up his public support at home and to further consolidate his power if he feels one day that his hold on power in Baku is weakening.

Conclusion:

As explained above, security implications for Armenia stemming from the Turkish acquisition of S-400 air defense system are multi-fold, at the same time it doesn’t mean that S-400 air defense system cannot be defeated. It can be taken out in many ways among them surgical strike, sabotage, cruise missiles, an attack by a swarm of drones, electronic warfare equipment and other means presently available. Furthermore, it doesn’t mean that Armenia should not engage its air force in the next conflict with Azerbaijan. However, to strengthen its security Armenia should seek additional security guarantees from other regional and global players such as U.S.A/NATO, E.U., China and possibly even Iran. Making effort to become a strategic partner for the U.S. is a good way to start especially when there is a will among a number of U.S. Congressmen to offer Armenia with such an opportunity to enhance its national security and further stabilize the region by neutralizing threats from Azerbaijan and Turkey.

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