Watching the current trajectory of the U.S.-Turkish relationship is like witnessing two locomotives hurtling towards one another head-on. It’s a terrifying sight. As both capitals struggle to pull the brake, it’s important to understand the backstory about one issue caught up in the impending train wreck: the long-suffering Patriot air and missile defense deal. This is a tale less about the security and economic benefits of the sale and more about a time of intense geopolitics, bilateral policy fights, and growing mistrust between two close NATO allies. As two senior Defense officials who helped manage the U.S.-Turkish defense relationship from 2009 through 2018, we feel it important to give our view on how the United States got to this low point not only in the Patriot sale, but also in this important relationship.
Providing Turkey with air and missile defenses has been an important mission especially since the Gulf War when Turkey asked NATO for the first time to send air defenses to protect them from possible retaliatory SCUD missile strikes from Saddam Hussein. The United States, Germany, and the Netherlands heeded the call, each deploying Patriot missile systems under a NATO flag. The Patriot air and missile defense system was designed during the Cold War with an air defense mission but earned fame during the Gulf War as a point missile defense system against SCUDs. Afterwards, it became the benchmark to meet for air and missile defense systems. From that point on, Turkey approached NATO for air and missile defense whenever their neighborhood got hot, most recently in 2013 during the fighting in Syria, when NATO allies deployed the Patriot or the Eurosam SAMP/T missile defense systems to the Turkish border.
Long suspicious that NATO did not appreciate Turkey’s vulnerability in such a dangerous neighborhood, Ankara came to view its missile defense requests as a litmus test for how much NATO really cared about Turkey. The alliance usually met Turkish requests, although the deployments were hard to sustain (and expensive to maintain) over a long period of time, given the few NATO members that possessed the appropriate missile defense systems. Nevertheless, the alliance bent over backwards to provide other forms of reassurance — such as Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) flights — if missile defense was not available.
Read the full article in War on the Rocks.