The U.S. will send two batteries of Patriot missiles and 400 troops to Turkey as part of a NATO force meant to protect Turkish territory from potential Syrian missile attack, the Pentagon said Friday.
Defence Secretary Leon Panetta signed a deployment order en route to Turkey from Afghanistan calling for 400 U.S. soldiers to operate two batteries of Patriots at undisclosed locations in Turkey, Pentagon press secretary George Little told reporters flying with Panetta.
Germany and the Netherlands have already agreed to provide two batteries of the U.S.-built defence systems and send up to 400 German and 360 Dutch troops to man them, bringing the total number of Patriot batteries slated for Turkey to six.
German lawmakers voted 461-86 Friday to approve the deployment of two Patriot missile batteries. The mandate allows Germany to deploy a maximum 400 soldiers through January 2014. NATO foreign ministers endorsed Turkey's request for the Patriots on Nov. 30.
A number of Syrian shells have landed in Turkish territory since the conflict in the Arab state began in March 2011. Turkey has condemned the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad, supported Syrian rebels and provided shelter to Syrian refugees. Ankara is particularly worried that Assad may get desperate enough to use chemical weapons.
During a brief stop at Incirlik Air Base, Panetta told U.S. troops that Turkey might need the Patriots, which are capable of shooting down shorter-range ballistic missiles as well as aircraft.
He said he approved the deployment "so that we can help Turkey have the kind of missile defence it may very well need to deal with the threats coming out of Syria," he said.
The U.S., Germany and the Netherlands are the only NATO members who have the upgraded PAC-3 missiles, capable of missile interception. Each battery has an average of 12 missile launchers, a NATO official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because alliance regulations do not allow him to speak on the record.
In a statement issued Friday NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said "the deployment will be defensive only."
"It will not support a no-fly zone or any offensive operation. Its aim is to deter any threats to Turkey, to defend Turkey's population and territory and to de-escalate the crisis on NATO's south-eastern border," Lungescu said.
Panetta did not mention how soon the two Patriot batteries will head to Turkey or how long they might stay.