On 15 February, NATO announced that the final of the the six Patriot batteries was operational. According to the press release, “In response to Turkey’s request, NATO Foreign Ministers decided on 4 December 2012 that NATO would ‘augment Turkey’s air defence capabilities in order to defend the population and territory of Turkey and contribute to the de-escalation of the crisis along the Alliance’s border’.” [Author added emphasis.]
After the Turkish Foreign Ministry
intentionally leaked that the Patriot batteries would be used to enforce a no-fly-zone in order to try and create a diplomatic fait acompli accidentally sent mixed signals about the Patriot’s intent, scholars, academics, and politicians have been advocating for NATO to use the missiles to establish a partial no-fly zone in Syria. While these voices have noticeably subsided in recent weeks, there continues to be a number people advocating such a course of action. However, few have actually sat down and figured out if such a move is possible.
Thus, Shashank Joshi – a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute – and I recently co-authored a paper for RUSI Journal about the Patriot missile system and Turkey’s Syria Policy. The paper relies on a series of interviews with Patriot missile experts, radar analysts, cruise missile specialists, and our own quantitative and qualitative research. As a result, we have concluded, unsurprisingly, that NATO’s statements about the Patriot deployment reflect reality. Namely, that their placement in Turkey reflects the stated mission of defending Turkish population centers – i.e. – cities close to the border. In other words, the deployment is defensive, not offensive.
I have summarized some of our findings below. As always, if you have comments tweet @aaronstein1.
Can Patriot be used to enforce a no-fly-zone?
The range and number of interceptors deployed in Turkey mean that the deployment cannot be used to establish a comprehensive no-fly-zone over Syria. However, if they had been deployed closer to the border, the missiles, depending on the aperture of the incoming target, could have theoretically intercepted targets 100 – 150 km into Syria. However, the interceptor’s maximum range depends on factors having to do with the trajectory of target that the system is engaging. Thus, the range is longer for targets with a high angle of attack – i.e. ballistic missiles – than it is for targets with a low angle of attack – i.e. – aircraft, cruise missiles, and helicopters.
According to one radar expert we interviewed:
The range they could reach would be primarily limited by the altitude of the target and the terrain between the target and the Patriot. In general, if the target is up high, the range can be quite long. For example, if there were no terrain effects, an airplane at an altitude of 1 km would be detectable at more than 100 km. However, for lower flying aircraft, terrain effects will dominate. Thus it is important to choose good basing sites, preferably high up and with unobstructed views. [Author’s note – simply look at a topography map of the Patriot locations and you’ll see that there are not any terrain obstructions – its is mostly flat ground].
Patriot is in principle of detecting and tracking dozens or possibly even hundreds of targets at a time. Engaging aircraft and ballistic missiles at the same time should not be a problem. Patriot is about the longest range air defense which realistically could be deployed. . . .Thus systems like Rapier/Hawk [Turkey’s current air defense missiles] would be useful for filling in gaps in Patriot coverage, for example due to terrain obstructions, but they would not be able to extend coverage to greater ranges.
However, the establishment of a NFZ – even a partial one – requires the establishment of robust command and controls and the careful deconfliction of airspace. Thus, they have traditionally been handled with aircraft. Thus, if one were to want to use the Patriots to aid in establishment of a NFZ, the mission would likely require the use of aircraft to fully enforce. This, in turn, would necessitate the suppression of Syrian air defenses, which would widen the scope of the intervention beyond simply using missiles to enforce a “passive NFZ.” Thus, the original Turkish strategy of using the intentionally leaked threat of the enforcement of a NFZ with Patriot was problematic from the get go.
Moreover, the cost of using the Patriot Pac-3 missile for the establishment of a NFZ would be prohibitively expensive. A single Pac-3 costs between $3 and $4 million – an incredibly large sum when one considers that they will be targeting Soviet Era aircraft. Moreover, expending the finite number of missiles on aircraft would detract from the missile system’s primary purpose – defense against ballistic missile attack. Hence, why the NFZ would require the use of aircraft. However, this, in turn, could be problematic. (See next section)
Patriot, the cruise missile threat, and friendly Fire
Patriot’s ground based radar has a maximum range of between 100 – 160 km; however, its range against low flying cruise missiles is limited by the curvature of the earth. Thus, it only has a range of up to 35 km when engaging cruise missile threats. In order to extend the range, the Patriot’s radar would have to augmented with airborne radar.
However, according to a cruise missile expert we interviewed, “NATO doesn’t have any suitable airborne detection, nor frankly does the US, unless you count on F-22s with airborne electronically scan antennas that can detect low cross section threats.” [Author’s note – the US cancelled the radar program and no ally has a similar program.] During the first Gulf War, the destruction of the Iraqi air force and absence of the cruise missile threat allowed for Patriot operators to “shut-down Patriot batteries against everything but targets with steep ballistic trajectories – i.e. ballistic missiles.”  In the second Gulf War, however, Iraq’s development of crude cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) forced a change in tactics that led to a series of friendly fire incidents. The first resulted in the death of two British Tornado pilots. The second resulted in the shooting down of an American F-18. And the third led an American pilot to use a missile to destroy a $50 million battery after he had been painted by the system’s radar.  In all likelihood, NATO will not “shut-down” the Patriot to deal with just ballistic missile threats because Syria possess cruise missiles.
One expert we interviewed said, “If you enforce a NFZ with both aircraft and ground air defense you will have a zone where your own aircraft can never fly into because it is too high a risk.” Thus, I like to joke that Turkey has been able to secure a NFZ – However, that zone is within the Patriot’s kill radius on the Turkish side of the border. Our source went on to say that, “According to USAF pilots, they are scared shitless of Patriots in war. They are afraid to be fired upon.”
The Patriot Battery and the Interceptor Missiles
A typical Patriot battery includes both the Pac-3 and the Pac-2. The system, depending on the target, chooses which missile to use. The Pac-2 GEM is the older and less expensive interceptor. It has an exploding warhead and was designed, primarily, as an anti-aircraft missile. Thus, it would be the most likely candidate for defense against aircraft. The missile, as described to us, is extremely capable against aircraft.
The Pac-3 is the newer missile and it has been designed, primarily, for anti-missile defense. The missile is 1/4 the size of the Pac-2, but is more agile and fast. According to one source, “They increased the Pac-3’s agility by putting a collar on the front that has explosive material. The missile chooses the number of rocket motors to ‘explode the missile over’ when it is homing in on its target.” The missile relies on hit-to-kill technology, which means that the interceptor destroys the incoming missile’s warhead by running its warhead into it at very high speeds.
Given the range of the Patriot, the only conceivable deployment that could used to down aircraft in Syria is the US deployment in Gaziantep. However, that is extremely unlikely, given all of the reasons listed above. Thus, given the technical limitations of Patriot, it is very clear that they are being used to protect Turkish population centers from possible ballistic missile attack. However, as has been apparent in recent weeks (and as I have been saying for months), the Patriot does not have any use against artillery shells. Turkish towns on the border, therefore, remain vulnerable to accidental attack by Syrian shells. Turkey, therefore, appears to have settled on putting in place the infrastructure to protects large population centers from a worst case scenario – i.e. chemical weapons attack using ballistic missiles – rather than a course of action predicated on large scale intervention.
Thus, if I were in the position to ask the Prime Minister a question, I would ask about Turkey’s passive defenses against chemical weapons attack. As I will explain tomorrow, Turkey’s chemical weapon preparations are reported to be lacking, thus raising a number of questions about the military’s level of preparedness to deal with an attack using WMD. Moreover, the Pac-3 has never been used to intercept a Scud in combat. Thus, it should not be treated as a panacea, but should instead be looked at as a tool to help aid in the defense of Turkish territory. These preparations should include the training of first responders to operate in a chemical environment, as well was putting in place plans to respond to a potential chemical weapons strike in population areas. Thus far, I have not seen any reporting on this, beyond one article in Foreign Policy a couple of months ago documenting the American training of Turkish special operation forces.
Stay tuned . . .
 Dennis Gormley, Missile Contagion: Cruise Missile Proliferation and the Threat to International Security (Washington, DC: Praeger, 2008). pg. 166.