The U.S. Army Wants to Expand a Secretive Missile Defense Site in Turkey

The service's 2018 budget proposal calls for significant improvements to the remote "Site K" 

MDA

The U.S. Army is looking to expand a secretive missile defense site in Turkey, according to the service’s request for funds in the 2018 fiscal year. The plan comes amid tensions between officials in Washington and Ankara over support for Kurdish rebels fighting ISIS in Syria, as well as cool relations with Russia who have historically criticized America’s missile protection plans in Europe and the Middle East.

Posted online on May 23, 2017, the military construction portion of the Army’s budget proposal includes approximately $6.4 million to build out a so-called “forward operating site” at an unspecified location in Turkey. The plan would provide adequate space for approximately 250 American personnel, Turkish forces, and contractors, operating a mobile AN/TPY-2 radar on behalf of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), as well as improve the overall quality of life at the facilities. Separately, the MDA asked for $524 million to support its entire world-wide "radar fleet," including the TPY-2 in Turkey. 

“This project is required … for a unit undergoing conversion from a Detachment to a Ballistic Missile Defense Battery,” according to the project description. “The project supports the operations of the AN/TPY-2 radar system, a deployed component of the Missile Defense Agency.”

Though the Army doesn’t say where the small base actually is, other publicly available documents point to an obscure facility near Malatya, Turkey, known as “Site K.” The Army, in cooperation with the MDA, first began setting up there in 2013 as part of a NATO missile defense mission known as Operation Atlantic Sentry. Raytheon's radar is most commonly associated with Lockheed Martin's Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system, but it can operate as an independent surveillance tool.

US Army

A rare shot of U.S. Army personnel at Site K in 2013.

From the request, the existing facilities sound pretty austere and unwelcoming. This is the official overview of the situation:

“The location is a previously abandoned radar site on a remote, underdeveloped mountain top. Currently, deteriorating temporary rigid wall structures are being used for the unit's readiness building. The unit is without warm vehicle storage. The vehicles are exposed to harsh winter conditions, sub-zero temperatures, heavy snowfall and high winds, which persist seven months of the year. Food is stored in refrigerator vans which are nearing the end of their service life. Large quantities of supplies must be temporarily stored in distant locations because the site is inaccessible during the winter months.”

So, the Army wants new funds specifically to pay for an upgraded ready building for the missile defenders, an expanded motor pool, an improved power plant, and various storage facilities to support these operations. In addition, the money covers associated improvements to the site’s local defensive perimeter, electric power and gas lines, water and sewage systems, and storm drains.

DOD

A slide from a 2013 U.S. Office of Defense Cooperation-Turkey briefing noting the radar site near Malatya.

Maintaining the site is an important part of MDA’s global posture, which is primarily focused on protecting against potential missile launches from smaller, regional actors such as Iran and North Korea. Site K is one of three known AN/TPY-2 radar positions in the Middle East and Northeast Asia. The other two are in Japan and at a location on top of Israel’s Har Keren known as Site 512. As of May 2017, there was another radar deployed somewhere else in the Middle East. Another unit was assigned to a Army THAAD task force on the island of Guam.

Though the exact range of the system isn’t known, Raytheon’s radar may have the ability to track targets more than 1,800 miles away, depending on its position. These positions give MDA the ability to spot missile launches and other activity inside Iran and North Korea. The Pentagon recently set up another one of the radars in South Korea.

US Army

A map of American military facilities Europe and the Near East as of 2015, showing Sites G, K, and 512.

MDA and U.S. Strategic Command, which supports these sites through its Joint Functional Component Command for Integrated Missile Defense (JFCC-IMD), are especially tight-lipped about this network. In December 2014, in response to the author’s Freedom of Information Act request seeking a complete roster of overseas missile defense sites, STRATCOM said it could “neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of any remaining sites” beyond Sites G, K, and 512.

The command did confirm that MDA was no longer overseeing Site G, a “contingency location” situated near Gaziantep in Turkey. At that time, Army air defense soldiers were operating Patriot missile batteries from that site to guard Turkey against potential Syrian ballistic missile attacks as part of a mission nicknamed Operation Anatolian Protector. This followed reports in December 2012 that the regime in Damascus was firing Scud missiles at rebel positions inside the country.

US Army

A U.S. Army solider poses with a member of the Turkish Air Force Security Forces at Site K in 2013.

Unfortunately, the Army’s plans to continue support for and expand Site K come at a time when relations between Turkey and the United States, both NATO allies, are unusually cold. Ties between the two countries have been increasingly strained over American assistance to Kurdish forces in neighboring Syria. The War Zone has already written extensively on this issue. Officials in Washington see the Syrian Kurds as invaluable partners in the fight against ISIS, while Turkish authorities see them as an extension of domestic terrorists.

Both sides might decide to use the facility as a political bargaining chip. It reportedly took more than a year to negotiate the deployment of American personnel to Site K in the first place. Then, in 2015, Turkey publicly criticized the Pentagon’s decision to withdraw the Patriots from Site G. The Army’s troops never fired a shot in anger against an incoming Syrian missile during the multi-year deployment. Spanish air defense units ultimately took over the mission.

However, the United States is unlikely to be interested in giving up the capability at Site K. During visits to Saudi Arabia and Israel in May 2017, President Donald Trump and other members of his administration repeatedly criticized Iran. Earlier in the month, the U.S. government expanded sanctions on the regime in Tehran over its missile programs, which American officials say could eventually produce an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear weapon.

Syria’s Scuds remain a threat, too. In March 2017, the government in Damascus threatened to unleash a barrage of the missiles at Israel if it did not halt air strikes on Syrian territory targeting arms shipments reportedly bound for Hezbollah terrorists. To the best of our knowledge, without the radar in Turkey, Site 512 in Israel would be alone in watching both Iran and Syria from the ground.

Lockheed Martin

U.S. Army personnel fire a THAAD interceptor during a test.

And with the relationship between the governments in Moscow and Ankara thawing over increasingly shared interests in Syria, Russia could also seek to pressure Turkey over the site. The Kremlin has repeatedly criticized American and NATO missile defenses as a threat to its nuclear deterrent. While there are no anti-ballistic missile weapons based at Site K, the powerful AN/TPY-2 is problem enough for officials in Moscow. Though ostensibly pointed at Iran, it could also let American forces keep an eye on Russia’s southern flank. Chinese officials have similarly complained about the new radar site in South Korea.

An enlarged, more permanent base at Site K would open up the possibility to deploy actual THAAD interceptors. One wonders why else it would otherwise be necessary to not only improve the facilities on the mountain top, but also expand them to accommodate an entire battery’s worth of personnel.

At the moment, the actual climate appears to be more pressing than the political climate. Whatever happens to the facility in the end, hopefully the personnel near Malatya will at least keep warm in the meantime.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com