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US general says Turkish plan to buy Russian S-400 air shield systems risk for NATO

This file photo taken on May 9, 2017 shows Russian S-400 Triumph medium-range and long-range surface-to-air missile systems riding through Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow. (Photo by AFP)

The Turkish government’s plan to purchase the Russian S-400 systems would give the advanced air defense shield, used by “known foes” of NATO, deep insight into the US radar-evading F-35 fighter jets arriving in increasing numbers in Europe, the top American Air Force general in Europe warns.

“Anything that an S-400 can do that affords it the ability to better understand a capability like the F-35 is certainly not to the advantage of the coalition,” said General Tod Wolters, who is also the NATO Allied Air Commander, on Sunday.

The US general, who was in the UK for the 2018 Chief of the Air Staff’s Air Power Conference in London, further said that the issue was worrying, but added that he was working to maintain strong military ties with Turkey, a NATO member since 1952, “for now.”

Washington and NATO officials strive to prevent the sophisticated Russian-built anti-aircraft weapon system from collecting information about the US-made all-weather stealth multirole warplanes, technically known as the Lockheed Martin F-35 fighters, just as they are gaining a foothold in Europe.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin said in the Turkish capital, Ankara, on April 3 that they had agreed to expedite the delivery of S-400 missile systems. The delivery is expected to start between late 2019 and early 2020.

Russia is currently producing the defense systems for the Anatolian country under a loan agreement concluded between the countries last December.

The S-400 system, whose full name is the Triumf Mobile Multiple Anti-Aircraft Missile System (AAMS), is an advanced Russian missile system designed to detect, track, and destroy planes, drones, or missiles as far as 402 kilometers away. It has previously been sold only to China and India.

Last month, Turkey also received the first of the six F-35 warplanes from the US, according to a contract signed between Ankara and Washington. The US senators have already opposed the fighters’ delivery in light of Ankara's plan to purchase the Russian defense systems.

Experts say operating an F-35 nearby will also allow the S-400 system to accumulate key information about the range of detection and other characteristics of the aircraft, potentially undermining any element of surprise.

Turkey is striving to boost its air defense, particularly after Washington decided in 2015 to withdraw its Patriot surface-to-air missile system from Turkey's border with Syria, a move that weakened Turkey’s air defense.

Before gravitating towards Russia, the Turkish military reportedly walked out of a $3.4-billion contract for a similar Chinese system. The withdrawal took place under purported pressure from Washington.

Ankara’s ties with its Western allies in NATO have been strained over a range of issues. Erdogan has been critical of Washington for supporting Kurdish groups in Syria that he says are responsible for terror attacks inside Turkey. 

Erdogan has also slammed American officials for rejecting his requests to hand over Fethullah Gulen, a powerful opposition figure living in the US, whom Ankara accuses of having masterminded a coup attempt in July 2016.

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