There are several weird elements in the missile defense drama suddenly being played out in Turkey. Alert readers won’t be surprised that two of those weird elements are Russia and Iran.
Seemingly out of the blue, Germany announced this past weekend that the German contingent of two Patriot missile batteries, deployed to Turkey as a defensive measure in January 2013 – against the threat of Syrian Scuds – would be withdrawn ahead of schedule.
Within hours, the U.S. had made the same announcement about the American Patriot missiles that were deployed to Turkey at the same time. The German and American contingents represent four of the five NATO Patriot batteries now in Turkey (the fifth is from Spain). The four units will be gone by the end of 2015.
The New York Times puts the abruptness of this move down to the delicacy of recent negotiations over U.S. use of air bases in Turkey for the fight against Islamic State. The NYT article – apparently conveying information supplied on background from the Obama administration – suggests that it would have jeopardized the priority of base access if the Turks had been told earlier, during negotiations, that the Patriot missiles were to be pulled out, at the behest of the Pentagon, due to the lack of a threat from Syria.
Instead, the U.S. kept the Patriot withdrawal a secret until the Turks had agreed to a base access proposal. Says NYT:
Four American officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a diplomatic issue, said Sunday that Turkish officials were livid when told two weeks ago that the United States was withdrawing the Patriots.
So the Obama administration continues to win friends and influence people.
Here are the main weird elements in this tale.
But wait – there is a threat from Syria
It’s not true that there has been little to no threat demonstrated from Syria. In fact, on 25 March 2015, a Scud missile was fired from Syria into southern Turkey. Its impact was in Reyhanli, in coastal Hatay Province.
Defense News writer Burak Ege Bekdil (apparently a Turk) wondered at the time why one of the NATO Patriot systems didn’t intercept the Scud. It’s a fair question: although we don’t know exactly where the German Patriots were positioned in the neighboring border province of Gaziantep, Gaziantep is where they were at the time.*
No intercept is ever guaranteed, and there may have been legitimate reasons relating to geometry or system capabilities why neither German unit was able to shoot down the Scud. There could have been a number of reasons. We don’t know, and I stress that we don’t have the information to draw conclusions.
But in light of this actual instance of a Scud being fired into Turkey, only a few months ago, it’s quite uncharacteristic of the Pentagon to decide – as the NYT’s sources indicate – that the threat from Syria is too low to justify keeping our Patriots in southern Turkey. The Pentagon is far more likely, if left to its own devices, to keep this threat reflected as active and on the books for years afterward.
The reason given for pulling out the Patriots – that they need upgrading and maintenance, and in a world of multiple threats there are higher priorities – comes off as a limp excuse for a really peculiar security decision. Seriously: there’s somewhere else on the planet where we have a treaty ally bordering a live, hot civil war in which at least one of the belligerents can launch ballistic missiles – in fact, already has – and even missiles with chemical warheads?
As we’ll see, you don’t want to forget that Germany announced the decision first, this weekend, and it was a German unit that was closest to the Scud fired into Hatay Province.
Russia has been suspicious about the NATO Patriot deployments to Turkey from the beginning. Russia’s theory – echoed by some in the West – is that the Patriots were put in Turkey not to protect Turkey against Syria but to protect the NATO missile defense radar in Malatya Province against, well, Russia (and perhaps Iran).
NATO deployed the X-band AN/TPY-2 radar to Turkey in late 2011, with the system going operational in January 2012. By late 2014, expanded participation for Turkey in the NATO missile defense shield was looking like a “go,” in spite of earlier reservations in Ankara about data-sharing with Israel and the use of NATO assets for Israel’s defense.
(In late July 2015, Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed to do an about-face, poking NATO in the eye and resurrecting the prospect of contracting for missile defense systems with China – a move that now looks more explicable in light of the U.S. decision about the Patriots in Turkey. Turkey probably had a good idea, through intelligence, that it might be coming.)
I do not think that NATO put the Patriots in Turkey to protect the radar in Malatya. The Russian theory merely reflects Moscow’s fear that everything America does is a sneaky attempt to thwart Russia’s strategic deterrent. (Russia’s concern is that the NATO radar in Turkey can assist intercepts of Russian missiles as well as Iranian ones.)
In any case, even though there’s actually been a threat to the radar – more below – the Patriots aren’t the best defense against the nature of the threat, which almost certainly won’t be ballistic missiles, and is very unlikely to be manned attack aircraft. The Patriots aren’t particularly well positioned to defend the radar from those threats (although they aren’t point-defense systems, and aren’t best deployed next to specific targets that need defending). Given where an airborne threat to the Malatya radar would come from, it would make sense to put the Patriots further east in Turkey, if defending the radar against potential, if unlikely, threats were the objective.
The Russians are all a-jitter this summer over NATO missile defense plans, in part because of the standoff over Ukraine, and the military posturing by both sides in eastern Europe, but also in part because of the implication Russia reads into the JCPOA with Iran.
I wrote about this after the terms of the JCPOA were first unveiled. The Russians have interpreted Obama’s policy change on missile defense in 2009 to mean that an Iranian threat has been the sole justification for having a NATO missile defense for Europe. Now that a thousand flowers are blooming and peace with Iran is at hand, Russia’s foreign ministry has been flogging the theme that NATO can box up all the silly missile defense parts and send them off to be melted down for scrap.
Sergei Lavrov was quoted on 5 August, in fact, accusing Obama of lying because the U.S. isn’t seizing the opportunity afforded by the JCPOA to begin dismantling NATO missile defenses.
Iran hates both the Malatya radar and the NATO Patriots in Turkey. Tehran reacted with fury when the Patriots were introduced in 2013. In 2011, as preparations were being made to set up the NATO radar in Malatya (where the Kurecik district is located), Iran threatened to attack the radar if the U.S. or Israel attacked Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran’s specific threat to “bomb” the radar may not have been particularly realistic, if aerial bombardment was what the mullahs had in mind. But a Turkish intelligence report in 2014 outlined the efforts of an alleged Iran-backed “terror” network inside Turkey, which had conducted surveillance of the radar site in preparation for attacking it.
To adjust our thinking properly about the Iranian element in this, we must keep a couple of things in mind. One, the NATO radar and the NATO Patriots are both relevant to the problem of missile defense against a Scud coming from Syria. The radar was not installed with that threat in mind, but it is useful to the problem, nevertheless. Iran cares about the credibility of the Assad regime’s missile threat, wanting to preserve it as part of keeping the regime itself credible.
But on a bigger stage, and in the longer term, the NATO radar and the NATO Patriots are also both relevant to the defense of the Middle East against missiles launched from Iran. The Patriots deployed to Turkey wouldn’t be able to intercept Russian ICBMs, but there are scenarios in which they (or upgraded versions of them) could intercept intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) launched from Iran.
There has been no indication that the Patriots in Turkey were deployed with the threat of missiles launched from Iran in mind. But their presence has been directly relevant to Iranian thinking about the strategic use of ballistic missiles – and hence infuriating.
Their presence also seems to portend a future complication for Iran’s calculations in that regard. What if the NATO Patriots did move further east in Turkey? Where else might NATO suddenly put them for local tactical defense, as opposed to the alliance’s theater-level defense shield?
Iran has been at least as motivated as Russia to maneuver against the missile defense developments unfolding slowly – even a bit haphazardly – in Turkey.
With all of this in mind, consider an event reported in a German professional journal, which seems to have taken place earlier this year. On an unnamed date in the recent past, a German Patriot system in Turkey was “hacked” by unknown cyber intruders, and the system in fact “carried out ‘unexplained’ orders.” (H/t: Breitbart)
The article at the Local.de cites a specialty-media report – from a “civil service” journal called Behoerden Spiegel – on 7 July 2015. Although the Local has a link to the report, the website gives time-out errors when one tries to access it from the U.S. (Here’s the Wikipedia entry for the journal; it’s legit.)
The reference to “unexplained orders” indicates that some element of the missile system was under the control of hackers for at least a brief period, and that it actually did something unexpected, or tried to. The report on the event in Behoerden Spiegel seems to have characterized this categorically as a cyber-intrusion. If the Local’s summary is accurate, the original report wasn’t tentative about that. It moved on expeditiously to discussing how the breach could have been accomplished.
The magazine speculates about two weak spots in the missile system which could be exploited by hackers.
One such weakness is the Sensor-Shooter-Interoperability (SSI) which exchanges real time information between the missile launcher and its control system.
The second exposed point is a computer chip which controls the guidance of the weapon.
Attackers might have gained access in two different ways, one that takes over the operating of the missile system and one that steals data from it.
We don’t know enough about any of this to draw firm conclusions. But we do know who would be especially motivated to mess with the NATO Patriots – not just gather data on them, but make them do things – and who would have the best ability to use a cyber-attack to do that.
Russia would top the list. Iran is not to be dismissed, especially if Iranian agents have been creeping around Turkey conducting surveillance of NATO missile defense sites.
Although the Breitbart author mentions jihadists (meaning Salafis), and there is no reason to dismiss them entirely, I don’t consider them the most likely culprits. Hacking into a Patriot battery is of much more interest to Russia than it is to ISIS or al-Qaeda or al-Nusra. It’s certainly not a stretch to imagine Russian and Iranian intel services working together to bring this one off.
It would be an unjustified leap, meanwhile, to infer that the hacking of the German Patriot system was connected to the failure to intercept the Syrian Scud on 25 March. Perhaps it was, but we don’t have the information necessary to draw that conclusion. A careful analyst must caution against assuming too much.
But the facts we do have are still quite interesting. The most discouraging fact, in light of all the others, is that the Obama administration is racing Germany out the door with its Patriot missiles. Everything about the situation argues instead for keeping the Patriot presence in Turkey on the table as a key security policy issue for the U.S. and NATO.
If a hacking incident has revealed an IT weakness in the Patriot, that certainly needs to be fixed. If the Patriots in Turkey are positioned sub-optimally, or oriented in a way that lags the real threat, that should be addressed as well. But these things can be done without leaving the impression that Russia and Iran just might have succeeded in scaring us out of Turkey with our Patriots.
As always, with the Obama administration, the battle for credibility was lost in the failure of policy communication. Instead of making direct, affirmative statements about U.S. policy, the administration conveys coy signals through anonymous disclosures to the media. Very often, as it has done here, the administration cobbles together ridiculous “bureaucrat-ate-my-homework” excuses for what it has done, and tries to pass them off as stern drivers of policy – as if the president can’t tell a reluctant, penny-pinching Pentagon to suck it up and keep Patriot missiles in Turkey.
* The NATO Patriots are deployed in the provinces of Adana, Kahraman-Maras and Gaziantep, as seen on Map 1. It’s a good question why they were placed as they have been. The deployment areas can be viewed as clustered to counter a missile threat that would presumably arise from western Syria; e.g., from territory held by the Assad regime near Aleppo. Why it would have taken five or six Patriot units to cover this relatively small area is still an interesting question. (The original deployment included two units from the Netherlands, as opposed to the one unit from Spain in the current order of battle.)
Turkish demographics may offer one clue to the clustering effect. The map below shows how intensely ethnic Kurds are concentrated in the provinces further east along Turkey’s southern border. Whatever the threat from the south, Turkey would be less likely to want the NATO Patriots to be deployed into Kurdish-majority provinces.