Patriot Missiles Won't Cure Syria

A hands-off no-fly zone won't work very well.

Last week, Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called for a no-fly zone inside Syria. He had just heard Admiral James Stavridis, the Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, explain that NATO’s Patriot missile batteries deployed in Turkey could shoot down Syrian military aircraft in a radius of twenty miles. Stavridis added that the missiles “would be helpful in breaking the deadlock and bringing down the Assad regime.”

Although Levin had separately called for destroying Syria’s air defenses, he saw Patriots as offering intervention on the cheap: “a way without putting boots on the ground and in a way that would be fairly cautious, that would put additional pressure on Assad and also create a zone where Syrian people who are looking for protection and safety could come without crossing the border and becoming refugees.”

Levin may be technically correct, but he is practically wrong. The background and capability of the the Patriots in Turkey show why the senator is misguided.

In the summer of 2012, after Syria downed a Turkish reconnaissance plane, Ankara shifted to a more aggressive policy, demanding that NATO intervene to topple the Assad regime. The alliance was deeply divided on the issue. Some, like Germany, were outright opposed, and more hawkish allies, like France and Britain, were partial to arming the rebels instead of pursuing a Libya-style campaign.

The deployment of Patriots to Turkey—for the third time in two decades—was a compromise. It was intended to demonstrate alliance solidarity to a country wary of merely verbal commitments. It also provided an insurance policy against the prospect of a collapsing regime firing its ballistic missiles at Turkey, much as Saddam Hussein had done to others in both Gulf Wars.

Patriot missiles are ideal for these two defensive missions. But they have a tightly circumscribed military role, which makes them ill-suited for expansive military intervention. Turkey requested twenty Patriot batteries for complete territorial coverage, but NATO officials deemed this excessive and sent six batteries: two each from Germany and the Netherlands, and an additional two from the United States. The PAC-3 battery can hold up to sixteen missiles, while the PAC-2 can hold up to four. Both of those can engage jets and, depending on their altitude and speed, low-flying helicopters.

Thus, apart from protecting Turkish population centers, the Patriot—and specifically the US batteries deployed to Gaziantep—could bring the airspace above key battlegrounds in the civil war, such as the city of Aleppo, into range. But this is harder than Senator Levin seems to think.

Coverage and Range

The Patriot’s limited range and the number of batteries means that this deployment could only cover small patches of Syrian territory. Assuming a sixty mile range for aircraft, a figure employed by a number of experts, the only battery close enough to the border to engage Syrian targets would be a U.S. Patriot battery in Gaziantep. That would place the still-contested city of Aleppo just within range. Even Al Raqqa, which in early March 2013 became the first city to have fallen to the rebels, is well out of range. German and Dutch batteries have been deployed in Kahramanmaras and Adana, which are both incapable of reaching anything other than insignificant slivers of airspace along the border.

However, if we accept Stavridis’ more conservative estimate for the Patriot’s range against aircraft (this can differ according to the altitude of the target and the intervening terrain), about 20 miles, then that would put even the U.S. batteries completely out of range of Syrian airspace, and even too far away to reach the border town of Kilis.

To be sure, NATO could add more batteries and shift its existing deployments closer to the border. But moving the batteries might compromise coverage of Turkish population centers, something that would be politically problematic. Moreover, European NATO members are unlikely to countenance any such change in the mission, and might even pull their own batteries out of Turkey in such a scenario. The German and Dutch parliaments debated long and hard for the current mission, and agreed to the deployment on condition that, as NATO’s Secretary General put it at the time, “It will in no way support a no-fly zone or any offensive operation.”

Cost and Numbers

Using Patriot in an anti-aircraft role might also be implausibly expensive. A single PAC-3 missile costs between $3 and $4 million, which represents a high proportion of the unit cost of the aircraft it would be targeting. Moreover, the batteries being deployed in Turkey can hold only a limited number of interceptors (between twenty-four and ninety-six, depending on the mixture of interceptor missiles).

Even if one accepts that Turkey may be sent additional, spare interceptors, expending this limited stockpile on Syrian aircraft might leave Turkey vulnerable to ballistic-missile salvos, which would defeat the primary purpose of the Patriot deployment.

Of course, the hope is that a no-fly zone would be a sufficient deterrent to Syrian pilots, such that no missiles would need to be used. As Stavridis told Senator John McCain, “I think that whenever aircraft are shot down, that is a powerful disincentive.”

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