Turkish Delight? The Deployment of Patriot Missiles to Turkey Poses Further Questions than Answers

The deployment of Patriot missiles to Turkey in response to the ongoing Syrian civil war makes sense strategically and underscores NATO's relevance. However, they also hamper Turkey's role to seek accommodation with her neighbours.

The rapid political consensus that engineered the deployment of NATO Patriot missile batteries to Turkey exemplifies a unified alliance. The Netherlands, Germany and the United States have each agreed to supply two ground-to-air missile batteries, which Turkey requested after numerous cross-border shelling from Syria, including an attack in October 2012 that killed five civilians. The United States last month also expressed concerns that there were signs President Bashar al-Assad could be preparing to use chemical payloads against the rebels. Syria is reported to have a varied arsenal of rocket and short-range missiles - including the Soviet-built SS-21 Scarabs and Scud-B missiles, capable of carrying chemical payloads

The Patriot missiles are scheduled to become operational and fully capable by early February, but their presence along the Turkey-Syria border highlights fears that Syria's civil war could further embroil other nations in the region.

The Patriot system is a medium-range capability, which ironically is not configured to protect against artillery shells but is  designed for more advanced threats from warplanes,  ballistic missiles and UAVs. Typically, a Patriot battery includes both the older PAC-2 variant, a proximity fusing missile which explodes close to an incoming missile and the PAC-3, which intercepts and destroys missiles by impacting them directly with kinetic energy ('Hit-to-Kill'). The Netherlands, Germany and US are the only NATO countries with the most modern type of Patriots (PAC-3) and each had to approve separately its own commitment prior to deployment.

The US batteries, along with 400 troops to operate them, will be based at Gaziantep, 50 km north of the border. The German battery, accompanied by 400 troops also, will be based at Kahramanmaras, around 100 Km north of the border and the Dutch (with 360 troops) will be based at Adana, also around 100 Km west of the border. Whilst NATO is in overall charge of the system, Turkey will be integrated into the chain of command at all levels: from the batteries themselves to Command and Control in Ramstein, Germany.

NATO have asserted that the deployment is defensive in nature, acting as a reassurance capability within Turkey's borders and it presently cannot be transitioned to enforce a No-Fly Zone. The radar range (150+km) of the Patriots suggests that potential targets and missile movements within Syria can be monitored, with the US battery in Gaziantep covering the region around the critical city of Aleppo.

Financial and Strategic Rationale

Their utilisation will provide succour and cover for the Syrian rebels, with the porous border an obvious and critical transit point for weapons being smuggled over to aid in the overthrow of the Assad regime. Their flexibility is a boon should the rules of engagement change and if a more aggressive posture is required. 

In the US, the PAC-3 is highly regarded and the Pentagon recently awarded Lockheed Martin a $755 million firm-fixed-price contract to provide for their procurement, including support for Foreign Military Sales, and related services. The US government currently clears Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, Taiwan and the United Arab Emirates for Patriot sales. The Turkish deployment has the added benefit of showcasing and justifying these capabilities during a period of shrinking defence budgets.

The current deployment will either delay Turkey's decision to augment its air defences under the $4 billion Turkish Long Range Air and Missile Defense System (T-LORAMIDS) competition or give the combined Lockheed Martin-Raytheon Patriot bid significant momentum over the French-owned Eurosam with its SAMP/T Aster 30; the Russian S-300 system by Russia's Rosoboronexport; and the HQ-9 proposed by the China Precision Machinery Import and Export Corporation.

The deployment follows on from the success of the Israeli Iron Dome System during the recent Gaza crisis, which put missile defence capabilities in the spotlight. Comparatively, the Iron Dome system is designed to engage threats coming in from 4 to 70 Km away, whereas the Patriot PAC 2 is suitable against the SCUD B, which has a range of up to 300 km[1]. The PAC 3 variant is used to intercept the longer-range SCUD C and D models (600 and 700 Km). The Patriot can be considered as an upper layer system whilst the Iron Dome deters lower layer threats. Interoperability between both systems, as part of an expansive missile defence architecture, is feasible and an opportunity worth considering as the US is financially engaged in developing the Iron Dome system.

Patriots Heighten Regional Tensions

The Patriot deployment conveys a wider, robust message that may escalate regional tensions. Firstly, it symbolises Alliance solidarity, as entrenched in Articles IV and V of the North Atlantic Treaty. This is consistent with previous deployments during the Gulf Wars in 1991 and 2003. Secondly, the mobility and adaptability of the Patriot batteries will certainly irk the Iranians, and their distaste was made clear when President Ahmedinejad cancelled his scheduled visit to Turkey in December 2012. The Iranian political and military leadership have also stated that the deployment is a provocative act that could lead to a future world war. Bilateral relations have been skewed since Turkey agreed to host a AN/TPY-2 X-band radar, which is integral to the Obama Administration's Phased Adaptive Approach contribution to NATO missile defence (despite Ankara successfully opposing efforts to name Iran as a specific threat to the alliance).

The Kremlin, also having concerns over the NATO missile defence system, has sought to portray the Patriot deployment as an aggressive measure.  After meeting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in December last year, President Putin declared in a Chekhovian fashion that, 'if a gun is hung on the wall at the start of a play then at the end of the play it will definitely fire'.

Whilst the Patriot deployment has served to safeguard Turkey's defences at a critical time, it also compounds the complex multifaceted bilateral relations Ankara has with Iran and Russia. Turkey is dependent on energy supplies from both, with Iran providing over half of Turkey's oil. Turkey's gold exports in 2012 were linked to payments for imports of Iranian natural gas, much to US consternation. This mutual interest, which impacts upon Turkey's relations with the US, has the potential to deteriorate, as Turkey's foreign policy aims and its Syria policy deviate from Tehran's agenda, further muddying the waters of Turkey's much vaunted 'zero problems' foreign policy.

The continuing shifts in the region, the tightening of international sanctions related to Iran's nuclear programme and indeed, a military strike against Iran, could severely undermine Turkey's energy interests and its ambitions to become a Eurasian energy hub. Cool pragmatism will also be needed in handling Turkey's energy relationship with Russia, from where it imports over half of its natural gas. Tensions are already visible with Turkey backing away from Russia's South Stream gas pipeline project due to fears over import dependency, inflexible long-term supply contracts and ultimately the Kremlin's ability to withhold energy resources as a political tool.

The recent suicide bombing at the US Embassy in Ankara by the leftist-extremist Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C) has also highlighted how Turkey's present foreign policy choices and alliances may be the harbinger of further terrorist attacks on government buildings and diplomatic missions in the future. The DHKP-C accuses the Turkish leadership of being servile to the US and therefore condemns the deployment of the Patriot batteries and Turkish attempts to influence an anti-Assad outcome in the Syrian conflict.

Turkey's Delicate Balancing Act

The deployment of Patriot systems in Turkey, is a political gesture that resonates internally within NATO, whilst also offering a military capability that attempts to safeguard Turkey's security as the Syrian conflict becomes more fraught. It will however pose questions regarding Turkey's bilateral dealings with Iran and Russia, especially when related to energy dependency and US pressure linked to its own diplomatic skirmishes with both countries.

This leaves Turkey in a delicately placed situation and the recent suicide bombing in Ankara may also act as a catalyst to encourage further internal dissent by critics of Turkey's current conduct, in an attempt to spread dissent amongst the population as well as stirring up sectarian conflict.




[1] Data from interview with missile expert Uzi Rubin.


Avnish Patel

Research Event Officer

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