GAZIANTEP, TURKEY — Six batteries of U.S. made, but NATO-backed, missile defense systems have been set up in southeastern Turkey to protect against aerial attacks from war-torn Syria.
U.S. soldiers are maintaining Patriot Missiles. Since January, the missiles have been stationed at a Turkish military base outside Gaziantep. The city is 50 kilometers from Syria, where an an increasingly bloody civil war has killed at least 70,000 people.
Syrian government forces appear to be mostly firing at rebels, who are backed by Turkey. But Syrian fire has landed several times in Turkey, in one instance killing five people.
Turkey's government asked NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) for the missiles.
Commander Charles Branson said when the system's radar detects a potential threat, it sends the information to NATO commanders. In seconds, they decide whether to respond.
“They give us a determination, sort of a filter if you will. If it comes back positive, yeah, that's an enemy. If it comes back negative, that's a friendly. There are determinations. But that information is sent to the launcher. It tells the missiles specifically to shoot or not shoot,” said Branson.
The two U.S. missile batteries here are staffed by 400 soldiers. Each battery includes six launchers carrying a total of 48 missiles. Germany and the Netherlands each have sent two similar batteries to Turkey.
NATO says the missiles are for defensive purposes only. So far none has been fired. Battery Commander Captain Leslie Dembeck said the team nevertheless must still keep up its skills.
“It does give us the option to go into a training phase where we can do a simulation scenario where we would interact with the threats," said Dembeck.
First Lieutenant Mary Jocelyn said although team members are far from home, they are committed to the mission.
“...to actually get to use all of our training experiences, to be able to help out a friend when they ask for help, and to be able to stand next to the Turks,” said Jocelyn.
The soldiers don't know how long their deployment will last. Syria's rebels have been pushing for a multi-national no-fly zone in Syria, but without it, the missile batteries are the first-line border defense.