Monday, 15 March 2010

Turkey's Missile Defense Challenges

Published in Articles

By Richard Weitz (vol. 3, no. 5 of the Turkey Analyst)

By dint of geography and its strategic relations, Turkey has assumed a pivotal role in Europe’s future ballistic missile defense (BMD) architecture. The United States has been lobbying Ankara to participate in its program within a NATO framework, while Iran and Russia have encouraged Turkey to keep its distance from Washington’s BMD plans. Turkish officials have strived to balance these competing forces while leveraging them to advance Turkey’s own regional security interests.

BACKGROUND: Turkish policy makers have sought to balance several competing interests in the missile defense field. First, they seek to defend Turkey against possible missile threats. Second, they want to highlight Turkey’s value as a NATO and U.S. ally by supporting their BMD goals. Third, Turkish leaders have sought to avoid antagonizing Russia or Iran, whose governments have expressed opposition to NATO and U.S. missile defense programs.

 Turkish government representatives publicly downplay concerns about Iran’s progress in developing missile technologies, but at least some members of Turkey’s national security establishment have expressed unease about Iran’s growing military capabilities. All of Turkish territory lies within the 1,500-kilometer range of Iran’s existing Shahab-3 missile.

Turkish officials became concerned in 2006 and 2007 when NATO seemed to be developing a missile defense architecture, based on the U.S. BMD systems planned for Poland and the Czech Republic, which would not extend to shield Turkey and other southeast European countries from missile strikes. At the time, the BMD assets envisaged for Poland and the Czech Republic would have lacked the assured capacity to identify, track, and intercept sufficiently rapidly a ballistic missile launched from Iran directed at Turkey or fellow NATO allies Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania.  After the governments of these countries protested their exclusion, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer took the lead in promoting a NATO BMD architecture that would provide adequate security for all European members of NATO. In March 2008, he assured Turkish reporters that, “Every NATO ally is entitled to the same kind of protection.” The June 2007 NATO Defense Ministers’ meeting initiated a study to evaluate how to integrate U.S. and NATO BMD initiatives to ensure the defense of Turkey and other southeastern European NATO members.

Progress remained limited until last September, when  President Barack Obama announced a major revision in U.S. BMD policies in Europe. Rather than implement the plans of the previous Bush administration to station long-range missile interceptors and an advanced BMD radar in Poland and the Czech Republic, the United States would instead aim to deploy shorter-range interceptors and a variety of radar systems closer to Iran. Among other advantages, Obama administration representatives argued that their revised plan would more effectively defend European countries from Iranian missiles than the earlier Bush architecture. Since the United States is paying to develop and deploy the shorter-range system, the American decision also settled the previous alliance dispute over how to fund a NATO BMD system that would primarily protect the few allies located close to Iran.

For several years, U.S. officials have described Turkey as an important contributor to any missile defense effort against Iran since, in the words of senior Defense Department official Alexander Vershbow, “Turkey is geographically closest to some of the threats that we are concerned about.” To overcome Turkish reluctance to join a primarily U.S.-built BMD architecture, American policy makers have emphasized the NATO dimensions of a possible BMD system in Turkey. When asked about his BMD discussions during a February 2010 trip to Ankara, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates stressed that “no decisions have been made by anybody” and “that even these conversations have been in the framework of a wider NATO wide missile defense system in which other NATO allies would participate as well.” Turkish diplomats have told the Western media that they want concrete evidence of NATO-wide support for any BMD systems in Turkey. They suggest, for instance, that NATO governments agree to use common alliance funds for such a system.

IMPLICATIONS: Obama’s new course addresses important Turkish concerns about NATO’s emerging BMD architecture. The revised U.S. plans should better protect Turkish territory, while the U.S funding increases the probability that the system will be established despite the lukewarm attitude of many NATO governments toward BMD. Yet, the new southeast European geographic focus of U.S. BMD policies makes it harder for Turkish policy makers to evade Russian and Iranian objections to NATO’s BMD initiatives. . Iranian policy makers would naturally see any Turkish-based NATO BMD system as directed against them, which could weaken Turkey’s sought-after role as mediator between Tehran and the West. If Iranian officials feared a Western attack or ever planned to launch Iran’s long-range missiles in a war, they would likely attempt to destroy or at least disable any BMD facilities located in Turkey beforehand.

For several years, Russian officials have been attacking U.S. and NATO plans to deploy missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic. Russian and U.S. officials spent several frustrating years unsuccessfully negotiating a resolution to this dispute. One solution proposed by Russian negotiators was for the United States to deploy these BMD systems closer to Iran. Russian officials explicitly listed Turkey as a preferable deployment site. At a press conference ending the June 2007 G-8 summit in Germany, then Russian President Vladimir Putin invited Washington to place BMD systems in and around Turkey: “I'm speaking hypothetically now as this would have to be negotiated with the countries concerned, but those countries could be the United States' NATO allies, for example Turkey or even Iraq.” The following year, Russia’s Ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, argued against the planned Polish and Czech missile defense deployments by stating that, if the Bush administration was genuinely concerned about a threat from Iran, then it would be more “logical to deploy U.S. missile defense elements on NATO’s southern flanks – in Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania.”

President Obama’s September decision to focus initially on establishing near-term missile defenses against Iran addressed Putin’s stated concerns. But as soon as Romanian and Bulgarian leaders indicated they might permit the stationing of U.S. ground-based interceptor missiles on their territory, Russian officials began to complain about the new BMD locations as well. The Russian Foreign Ministry stated that NATO should not deploy missile defense systems in southeastern Europe until a joint NATO-Russia assessment of ballistic missile threats confirmed the need for such systems, in which case NATO and Russia would undertake a joint response, which would initially involve non-military measures. Citing the necessity of reaching a deployment decision before an Iranian threat arises in order to have time to build, test, and put into operation a BMD system, U.S. officials have proved unwilling to await Russia’s permission before proceeding with their deployments. Russian officials will likely continue to pressure Turkey to limit its support for these deployments, either on Turkish territory or by allowing BMD-armed ships to remain on patrol in the Black Sea. U.S. officials have stated they do not intend to pursue a Black Sea option, which Turkish officials oppose as well since it could lead Russia to accuse Turkey of violating the Montreux Convention. 

Another unresolved issue is how the new U.S. and NATO BMD deployments near Iran will relate to Turkish government plans to acquire an independent BMD capacity to counter potential foreign missile attacks. Turkish officials said their national missile defense plan was simply a product of Turkey’s general military modernization program and not aimed at countering a specific foreign threat—which is why Turkey wants to acquire mobile BMD systems that can be relocated. Since the end of the Cold War, Turkish policy makers have sought to decrease their reliance on other NATO countries to defend Turkey from foreign threats. During Operation Desert Shield in 1990, some NATO governments evinced reluctance to protect Turkey from possible attacks from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. . Even the Obama administration’s redesigned BMD architecture for Europe cannot defend Turkey’s territory near the country’s 500-kilometer border with Iran from nearby Iranian missiles due to their very short flight time.  According to some Turkish media accounts, Turkish strategists also seek independent means to counter possible Greek air and missile strikes, reasoning that NATO allies would defend Turkey in a war with Iran but not with fellow NATO member Greece. 

When Turkish officials announced last September that they would spend at least one billion dollars constructing a national BMD network, they did not indicate how the new Turkish systems would relate to the planned U.S. and NATO missile defense structures for southeastern Europe. Turkish policy makers are considering buying BMD systems from Chinese, Russian, West European, and U.S. companies. The American government has agreed to allow Turkey to purchase the Patriot Advanced Capacity-3 system. Although the Russian or Chinese packages might be cheaper and provide for greater technology transfers, Turkey might still purchase Western systems to ensure that its national BMD network has adequate interoperability with the emerging U.S. and NATO structures, whose ranges allows them to engage targets over Turkey. At a minimum, the Turkish military would want to ensure, if not seamless operational integration between Turkey’s missile defenses and those of other NATO members, then at least sufficient coordination for purposes of de-confliction (e.g., averting their simultaneous employment against the same targets).

CONCLUSIONS: Turkey’s BMD dilemmas would ease if NATO and Russia established a joint BMD architecture, or at least agreed to cooperate sufficiently on BMD issues to allow Turkey to contribute to a NATO system without arousing Moscow’s ire. A few days before Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Washington on December 7, 2009, Vladimir Ivanovskiy, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, said Moscow would support Turkey’s hosting U.S. BMD systems if Turkey, Russia, and the United States partnered on the project.  

An alternative proposal, first made by Putin at the June 2007 G-8 summit, is for Russia and the United States to jointly use the Russian-leased early warning radar located at Gabala in Azerbaijan, a close Turkish ally, to monitor Iranian missile developments. Although the operational value of a jointly run Russian-American base is unclear given the probable reluctance of either country to share sensitive BMD data with the other, a Russian-American agreement regarding the radar might provide Turkey with sufficient cover to avoid finding itself sandwiched on the European BMD issue between Russia and Iran on the one side, and the United States and NATO on the other.

Richard Weitz, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis, Hudson Institute

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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