Updated: May 6, 2021
Turkey's decision to test the S-400 is another defiant step that is likely to reignite tensions between it and its NATO allies.
Reports, following the appearance of videos on social media, suggest that Turkey has begun live-fire testing of its controversial Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missile system. Doing so risks provoking the wrath of traditional allies, especially the United States, which has threatened new sanctions in the past if Turkish authorities were to take this step.
Video footage emerged on social media earlier of the reported “comprehensive test” of the S-400 system in the country’s Sinop province on the Black Sea coast. Though unconfirmed, they show narrow columns of smoke snaking into the sky over that region that do appear to be broadly consistent with S-400 missile launches that we’ve seen in the past.
The start of the air defense missile tests was subsequently reported by various outlets including the Associated Press, which noted that Turkish TV channel Haber, which AP describes as being close to the government in Ankara, had claimed to have confirmed the details.
Russia’s state-run TASS news agency subsequently quoted an unnamed source “in military and diplomatic circles,” stating that the Turkish S-400 tests involved three missiles being launched, all of which successfully engaged their designated targets.
The reported missile test also seems to follow a pattern of recently reported movements of S-400 system components within Sinop province. A number of videos have appeared in the last week or so claiming to show S-400 vehicles, apparently including transport-erector-launchers, on the move in the area, perhaps headed toward the test site. It’s also been reported that, in addition to the S-400 batteries, 10 British-made Banshee target drones were transported to Sinop for the tests.
Early last week, Turkey also issued a Notice to Airmen, or NOTAM, alerting pilots to potential hazards in the area. This is standard procedure for a weapons test of this kind and this particular notice indicated that Sinop Airport would be closed to inbound and outbound traffic between October 6 and October 16, due to “missile fire,” though it did not specifically mention the S-400 system. The first videos purporting to show the S-400 launches appeared online on the 16th.
Turkey has test fired its S-400 Air Defense System for the first time
According to previous reports, which were neither confirmed nor denied by the Turkish Ministry of Defense, the Turkish Armed Forces did not plan to “activate” the S-400 batteries, but would instead undertake tests of the equipment and the readiness of military personnel. In the past, the United States has threatened to impose sanctions on Ankara if the missile systems were formally put into service, and this may be an attempt to circumvent that.
Turkey first announced that it had agreed to buy S-400s from Russia in 2017, after years of failed attempts to acquire other long-range surface-to-air missile systems, including the American Patriot system. Turkey began to receive ts first four S-400 batteries in July 2019 and had previously indicated that the system would become operational in April 2020.
After Turkish authorities first declared that their plans to purchase the S-400s, the United States asserted that Turkey’s possession of these systems would threaten the security of the wider F-35 Joint Strike Fighter enterprise. U.S. officials, as well as representatives of other NATO nations, argued that not only would the S-400 be incompatible with NATO air defense equipment in a time of crisis, but that Russia could leverage the deal with Turkey to gain insight into potentially sensitive information about the F-35.
Turkey’s steadfast refusal to cancel the S-400 deal has already resulted in punitive measures from Washington, including the ejection of Turkey from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. A live-fire test, if confirmed, could certainly prompt calls for new sanctions.
While a live-fire test hadn’t been completed until now, Turkey had put the S-400 through its paces, including checking the function of the system’s various radars, last year, as discussed in greater detail in this past War Zone piece. These trials reportedly also involved participation from Turkish Air Force F-16 and F-4E fighter jets, as well as at least one helicopter.
As The War Zone also discussed in the past, Russia reportedly included NATO-compatible identification-friend-or-foe equipment within the S-400 as exported to Turkey, but this doesn’t seem to have alleviated U.S. and NATO concerns about the system being in Ankara’s hands.
Relations between Turkey and the United States, as well as between Turkish authorities and other NATO allies, are already strained over Ankara’s support to Azerbaijan, which is currently engaged in fighting Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Turkey’s allies have also been critical of its involvement in conflicts in both Syria and Libya, as well as recent standoff with Greece and other Mediterranean countries over access to oil and gas reserves.
This latter crisis recently prompted a strongly worded response from the U.S. Department of State, which said the United States “deplores Turkey’s […] announcement of renewed Turkish survey activity in areas over which Greece asserts jurisdiction in the Eastern Mediterranean.” The Department of State said Turkey’s action “unilaterally raises tensions in the region and deliberately complicates the resumption of crucial exploratory talks between our NATO Allies Greece and Turkey.”
If confirmed, these S-400 tests appear to be another example of a broader strategy of asserting Turkey’s independent foreign policy aspirations and increasing its geopolitical influence from the Black Sea through to the eastern Mediterranean, one that has already caused significant friction with its traditional allies.