Passive Defense: The Questions Turks Should be Asking about Patriot

Yesterday, I summarized an article I co-authored with Shashank Joshi – a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute- about the Patriot missile system and Turkey’s Syria policy. If you missed yesterday’s post, click here.

In general, Shashank and I have concluded that the Patriot missiles cannot be used to establish a no-fly-zone over parts of Syria. The missiles have been deployed too far from the border to effectively engage Syrian aircraft and expending the finite number of missiles on Syrian aircraft would detract from Patriot’s primary purpose – defense against chemically armed Syrian ballistic missiles. Thus, unsurprisingly, NATO’s repeated statements about the defensive nature of the deployment is backed up by the positioning of the missile interceptors in Turkey.

After initially leaking that the Patriots would be used to enforce a no-fly-zone in order to try and force NATO into a diplomatic fait accompli, Ankara has made an effort to emphasize that the missiles have been deployed to protect Turkish territory from WMD attack. The government, however, has failed to clearly articulate the threats to Turkish territory and how the Patriot is expected to help Turkey overcome its vulnerabilities. Thus, the dominant criticism of the Patriot has centered on its territorial coverage, the cost of the deployment, and, in a rather bizarre conspiracy theory, the protection of Israel   from a future Iranian ballistic missile attack (BTW – this is not possible based on the range of the Patriot and the likely trajectory of Iranian ballistic missiles on their way to Israel).

However, I have yet to see a serious analysis about the Patriot’s limitations, as well as the need for the government to put in place passive defensive measures to ensure that it is well prepared to deal with the fall out of chemical weapons attack.

Patriot Interceptor Problems

Critically, the Patriot does not protect population centers from artillery shells – the only projectiles that have fallen on Turkish territory to date. Syria is suspected of having chemical artillery shells, which, if used on rebel positions near the border, could accidentally strike Turkish border towns. While I don’t think this scenario is likely, it should nevertheless be discussed and prepared for. (More on this in a second)

Secondly, the Pac-2 GEM was designed primarily as an anti-aircraft weapon. While it has been updated to have some capabilities against ballistic missiles, it has some well documented flaws that could limit its effectiveness against Syrian Scuds. During the First Gulf War, the irregular trajectory and mid-flight break-up of Iraqi Scuds, caused in part by their overextended range, confused the Pac-2 interceptor. Post-Gulf War studies found that Patriot’s intercept rate could be lower than 10%, perhaps even 0%. Although low intercept rates are undesirable, the issue is magnified when considering the WMD threat.

Syrian Scuds, however, may not present the same problems as Iraqi Scuds for the new Pac-3 missile. First, they would not be operating at their maximum range, thus lessening the likelihood of mid-flight break up. Second, the Pac-3 has been updated and modernized and during the second Gulf War intercepted all 9 of Iraq’s ballistic missiles. However, those missiles were not Scuds. They were the lower and slower flying Al-Samoud missile. Thus, the Pac-3 has yet to be tested in combat against a Scud.

Passive Defense

Patriot, therefore, should not be counted on to work 100% of the time. Thus, Turkey should be taking steps to prepare for the worst. Foreign Policy reported in January 2013 that Turkish special forces were receiving training to operate in a chemical weapons contaminated environment. This training included the transfer of chemical suits, gas masks, and other equipment needed for war fighting in a chemical environment. However, the article did not include information about whether or not regular Turkish troops have received similar training or equipment.

For reference, the US Army Chemical School at Fort Leonard “trains thousands of soldiers, sailors, and marines each year in the art and science of chemical warfare defense . . . Students enrolled in the basic chemical weapons course learn to detect and identify the various types of chemical warfare agents, to don and seal a gas mask in seconds, to treat chemical casualties with injections of antidotes, and to decontaminate vehicles.” [1] The training results in a live fire exercise, where students are expected to don the suit and mask, and operate in a chemically contaminated environment. This includes an exercise to identify chemicals, how to drink water from special canteens, administer antidotes to mannequins dressed in regular battle fatigues, and how to identify the presence of colorless and odorless agents like VX and Sarin. [2] Thus, thousands of US troops, before going into battle, have experience operating in a chemically contaminated environment.

Do Turkish soldiers receive the same training? Moreover, are they equipped with the same equipment as their American counterparts. Information is hard to come by, though what I have found suggests that Turkey’s training is not nearly as robust as the United States’. The Turkish nuclear, chemical, and biological (NBC) weapons school is located in Adapazari and there is an NBC unit within the force structure of every corps level unit. However, their training is reported to be heavily geared towards World War II methods and is ill-suited for the modern battle field. Moreover, there appears to be a lack of chemical suits and gas masks, as well as specialized equipment needed to detect chemical agents. My source, however, is from 2001. Thus, things could have changed. The point is that we don’t know. Thus, I am of the opinion, that this should be at the top of the list of questions that those with access need to ask the Prime Ministry, the MFA, and the armed forces.

Secondly, there is scant information about the training of first responders to deal with the fall-out after a chemical attack. If Assad were to use chemical artillery shells, and some were to stray over the border, would Turkish first responders be able to detect colorless and odorless chemicals agents like Sarin and VX? Would they be able to don chemical suits and gas masks in seconds? Do they even have such equipment? Are there preparations currently underway to outfit hospitals near the border with antidotes? Does the military, which would probably be the organization asked to deal with the fall out, have a large enough stockpile of the antidotes to respond to large and small attacks?

This in turn, builds on my original question about the level of military training and the ability of the military’s first responders – likely the units that have been deployed to the border – to operate in a chemical environment. Do they have gas masks and chemical suits? Are they trained to operate in a chemical environment? Do they have the equipment to decontaminate vehicles like ambulances and medical evacuation helicopters? In all cases, we just don’t know.

Planning for the Worst

These issues, while hard to think about, need to be discussed so that first responders are prepared to deal with all scenarios. As of now, Turkey has done little to protect populations right on the border. The Patriot deployment is geared towards larger population centers like Gaziantep and Adana and cities farther north. In the event of an attack, ambulances and vehicles near the border would be counted on to transport civilians to hospitals in larger areas. However, as I mentioned above, this type of plan could be fatal should chemical weapons be involved.

Thus, I think the focus on the territorial coverage of the Patriot, as well as the ridiculous conspiracy theories that they have been deployed to protect Israel, have distracted from some of the outstanding issues that have yet to be clarified. Namely, is the Turkish military outfitted and ready to respond to a chemical attack? I dont know? Do you?

As always, if you have comments tweet @aaronstein1


[1] Jonathan Tucker, War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda (New York: Anchor Books, 2007), pg. 3.

[2] Ibid, pp. 3-5.

About aaronstein1

I am an Istanbul based PhD Candidate a King's College London.
This entry was posted in Chemical Weapons, Missile Defense, Syria, Turkey and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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