US extends Patriot missile mission in southern Turkey
WASHINGTON — The United States is extending its commitment of two Patriot missile batteries to guard Turkey from air attacks out of neighboring Syria, defense officials said Monday.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu that the United States would provide the batteries for an additional year during a meeting at the Pentagon early Monday. Turkey had requested the extension on Nov. 8.
Along with the U.S. missiles, contributions over the past year from the Netherlands and Germany brought the number of Patriot batteries guarding Turkey’s southern flank to six, all of them under NATO command.
“This renewal of the Patriot deployment is and will remain defensive only and represents a concrete demonstration of alliance solidarity and resolve,” assistant Pentagon press secretary Carl Woog said in an emailed statement after the meeting.
The Dutch government last week approved the extension of its own two Patriot batteries in Turkey, with Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans reportedly saying “the missile threat from Syria remains.”
A spokesman for the German embassy in Washington said Monday his government was still weighing Turkey's request to lengthen the deployment of two German-owned Patriot batteries by a year.
The U.S. batteries that have been in place for most of the last year were in the process of being returned to the United States for maintenance, and two replacement batteries being set up when Hagel announced the decision, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Robert Firman said Monday.
The new batteries are operated by the 5th Battalion of the 7th Air Defense Artillery Regiment out of Germany, he said.
“Ultimately, the mission does not change,” Firman said. “What’s changing is the personnel and the time line.”
Late last year, Turkey called on NATO to send anti-missile Patriot batteries to help protect its airspace after a spate of cross-border shelling from Syria. The U.S., Germany and the Netherlands responded by each sending two batteries to protect the air above the 3.5 million people in southern Turkey.
For nearly a year, roughly 400 troops with the Army’s 3rd Battalion, 2nd Air Defense Artillery’s Battery C, have been stationed in the Turkish border city of Gaziantep, some 40 miles from the Syrian border.
Syrian jets have routinely bombing nearby rebel strongholds — Syria’s Aleppo is one of the main sites for aerial bombardment. The Patriot batteries’ high-powered radars track all the activity across the border, from rockets to aircraft, according to soldiers in Gaziantep.
While the Americans’ primary mission is to defend Gaziantep from ballistic missiles, the unit keeps its eyes out for any aerial threat to the city of 1.5 million. That means 24-hour, seven-day-a-week operations, troops say.
The unit’s heightened state of alert requires round-the-clock duty, an unprecedented pace of work for an air defense unit, according to troops assigned to the battalion.
The primary challenge is keeping all the pieces working under the heavy strain. Each Patriot launcher — there are 12 on site — comes with its own high-powered generators that are unaccustomed to around-the-clock activation. That has meant long hours for unit technicians, whose deployment has been marked by a constant monitoring, tweaking and cleaning of the system to keep it up and running.