RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — More than 200 air defense artillery soldiers boarded a plane to Turkey early Monday to take over the mission of guarding NATO’s southeastern flank from possible missile strikes from Syria.
By mid-December, about 250 soldiers of the Germany-based 5th Battalion, 7th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, will take responsibility for the NATO-led air defense mission in Gaziantep, a Turkish city of about 1.5 million that sits less than 75 miles north of one of the most hotly contested areas in Syria’s two-year-old civil war, around Aleppo.
Lt. Col. Lisa Bartel, commander of the unit, said that deploying in the midst of the holiday season is difficult, “but it’s what we do. It happens.”
The unit had been preparing for months for the possibility of deploying with their Patriot missile batteries along the Turkish-Syrian border, but Turkey waited until the last minute to ask for an extension of the air defense mission, which is commanded by NATO. Before Turkey’s request, the 5-7 had already switched its Patriot batteries with those of the unit it’s replacing, the U.S.-based 3rd Battalion, 2nd Air Defense Artillery’s Battery C.
The U.S., the Netherlands and Germany have each had a pair of Patriot batteries operating along Turkey’s southern border since early this year. All have agreed to extend their deployments at Turkey’s request.
The Turkish government initially asked for the alliance’s help in defending its southern border in November 2012, after a spillover from the Syrian civil war killed several Turkish civilians.
Syrian officials apologized for cross-border shelling incidents they said were launched in the heat of battle against anti-government militants, but that did not assuage Turkish fears that the Syrian conflict would continue to spill over the approximately 500-mile border between the two countries.
There are some 3.5 million people living along the border, and a missile strike — accidental or otherwise — in a city such as Gaziantep “would be quite catastrophic,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Harold Lincoln, the senior enlisted leader of the 10th Army Air and Missile Defense Command, the higher headquarters of the 5-7. As they have for most of the year, the Patriot batteries will continue to operate around the clock, he said, “hot and ready to fire within seconds.”
In nearly a year, though, American, Dutch and German Patriot batteries in Turkey have not faced such a threat. Their high-powered radars track all activity across the border, including incursions by Syrian military aircraft, but have not fired.
The lack of action may in part be due to the fact that Turkey has its own air defense capability.
In September, a Turkish F-16 fighter jet intercepted and shot down a Syrian Mi-17 helicopter as it crossed the border.
“All we’re doing is augmenting their air defense capability and assisting them,” said Col. Gregory Brady, commander of the 10th AAMDC.
Pfc. Austin Knudtson, 19, said he joined the Army hoping to deploy but never thought he’d wind up in Turkey.
“I don’t think it’s going to be dangerous,” he said, adding that it was “kind of sad” to leave just before Christmas.
“We got Thanksgiving, though,” Bartel said.