Despite having an incredible edge technologically, the United States military would likely have tremendous difficulties finding Syrian road mobile scuds. While the United States has invested significant resources in improving its abilities in this area, it is still believed that problems stemming from targeting at night, the enemies use of decoy launch vehicles, limited sensor capabilities, and the lack of 24-hour coverage would allow a determined adversary to evade detection. Quite simply, a well-trained missile operator could hide somewhere in Syria without being found by even the most determined adversary.
Thus, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s claim that Turkey knows where all of Syria’s 700 (Turkey’s estimate) ballistic missiles are is a bit disingenuous (Say nothing about Syrian chemical artillery shells). Moreover, for a country like Turkey, which to my knowledge has never actually tried to hunt and seek road mobile scuds, the task appears to be monumental. Thus, a little humility is called for. NATO should be careful not to downplay the threat posed by Syrian scuds, and should avoid resorting to grandiose statements about capabilities to placate nervous constituencies. Bashar al Assad still retains a large ballistic missile force capable of overwhelming even the most robust missile defense system.
For reference, during the first Gulf War, the United States was 0-88 in it attempts to find and destroy Iraqi mobile scuds before they were fired. During the 2003 invasion, despite Iraq’s singular use of fixed launchers, which are theoretically easier to find and destroy, the Iraqi forces were still able to fire 22 missiles without being destroyed beforehand. (Click here for the full run down)
The Patriot missile defense system, while effective during the 2nd Gulf War against Iraq’s shorter range Al-Samoud and Al-Ababil short range ballistic missiles, has not yet intercepted the faster flying scud in a combat situation. Moreover, Patriot*, along with the SM-3** and THAAD***, are susceptible to failure when faced with ballistic missiles similar to the ones used by Iraq in 1991. For example, the break up of a poorly designed scud would confuse the PAC-3’s infrared guidance system, thus forcing the missile’s warhead to “choose” which glob of light to aim at. If the attacking missile were to break-up in the atmosphere (very likely), it is far from certain that the PAC-3’s warhead will choose the right target. In the vacuum of space, the missile debris would all be travelling at the same speed. Upon atmospheric re-entry, the heavier warhead would probably be travelling at a faster speed, though there are no guarantees that the interceptor will choose the right point of light to aim at. Thus, the interceptor’s warhead could actually hit a small object, but that object may not be the attacking warhead. Absent a direct hit, the incoming warhead will continue on to its target.
Moreover, the deployment of Patriot also carries other unintended consequences. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Patriot’s radar was prone to false alarms, thus prompting the operators to don chemical weapons suits multiple times a day. This led to decreased morale (Luckily, southern Turkey is not as hot as Iraq). I assume that the German and Dutch operators will face similar circumstances once the missiles are deployed in southern Turkey. Secondly, Assad’s continued use of low-flying aircraft (helicopters) will likely prompt NATO operators to have wider rules of engagement, thus necessitating the implementation of very strict no-fly areas for Turkish aircraft. Turkish pilots, which I am assuming have trained for operating in this type of environment, will have to stay out of certain areas covered by the soon-to-be deployed Patriot. If a Turkish pilot were to make a mistake, however, there is a risk that he could be targeted by the missile system.
To help compensate for the system’s deficiencies, NATO has paired the deployment of Patriot with stern warnings about the Alliance’s resolve to use massive force in response to a Syrian chemical weapons attack. The recent reiteration of NATO’s long-standing policy is an effort at establishing deterrence. Patriot, I am sorry to say, is not an effective deterrent against a determined adversary with a large number of ballistic missiles. It is a nuisance. A U.S. led military intervention aimed at regime change, however, is a much a more credible threat. Thus, I believe that NATO’s recent warnings and the coordinated leaks about chemical weapons is a tool to coerce Assad, rather than an indication of actionable intelligence about their imminent use.
Finally, I think it is important for NATO and the Turkish leadership to be frank with their citizens. Patriot is not a cure for all that ills Turkey. The Turkish leadership knows this. Thus, Ankara is likely to keep pressing for Assad’s downfall, and continue to prod the international community to intervene. However, it now has an important political tool to help convince a concerned citizenry that they are determined to defend Turkish borders. They also have a powerful symbol demonstrating Alliance cohesion. In either case the Turkish leadership wins.
*The SM-3 is a sea based missile interceptor designed to intercept medium range ballistic missiles in the mid-course phase and on the descent.
**Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) is an interceptor, radar, and firing unit designed to intercept medium range ballistic missiles just upon atmospheric reentry.
***Patriot is designed to intercept medium range ballistic missiles at lower altitudes.