Turkey is expected to ask NATO to deploy German Patriot air defense missiles on its border with Syria. That would be the first foreign deployment for a unit originally intended to protect against a Soviet threat.

You never know what a day at work will bring when you’re part of the military’s missile defense unit, said Major Sven Evers of the Husum-based anti-aircraft missile squadron. Evers and his soldiers monitor airspace and train for the possibility of being called on to shoot down an enemy jet. With just over an hour’s notice, the troops’ launcher is ready to fire.

Uncertain future

But the likelihood that Evers would be called on to shoot down a plane is unrealistic, he said. The soldiers based in the German city close to the border with Denmark have never been called on to fire their Patriot missiles. That’s led many German politicians to call for the squad to be disbanded, calling them a “military relic” no longer needed after the end of the Cold War.

Half of the 24 anti-aircraft units will be closed by 2015 because they’re operating with outdated technology and the remaining bases will be concentrated in northern Germany. While a new warning system with high-performance radar has been developed it has not been installed for cost reasons.

The Ministry of Defense has also told the German parliament that there are no more “possibilities to adapt” the Patriot defense systems to potential current threats. The units that are currently the most technically advanced will be out of date by 2025 and what happens then has not been decided.

‘Anything that flies and can be seen by our radar can be combated’

The Patriot missiles had their initial test during the first Gulf War when they were used to shoot down Iraqi Scud missiles. Analysis after the war presented a critical picture of the high success rates announced during fighting and questioned the use of Patriots to shoot down other missiles.

German Wing Commander Col. Marcus Ellermann said the systems were “in the first stages of capabilities against ballistic missiles and an established system against jets.” Asked about the missiles’ exact technical capabilities, he became tight-lipped.

“Anything that flies and can be seen by our radar can be combated with the Patriot weapons system,” he said. “There is no size limit for the target.”

German troops might need new camouflage in Turkey

The system is, however, deemed to be most effective against short-range missiles. But regardless of the target, time is always a key element to shooting anything out of the sky. Ten to 20 seconds after a target has been identified by radar an officer has to fire a missile to have a chance at a successful interception.

“We are talking about a range of 50 to 100 kilometers in which the target is recognized and steps are taken to fight it,” Ellermann said.

Part of potential NATO mission

Other than annual maneuvers in Crete, where the troops practice firing live weapons, foreign deployments have not been on the agenda. But that could change soon. In February, German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere announced that the Bundeswehr’s Patriot units were interested in participating in NATO’s missile defense system. NATO has not yet decided on the German application and a decision is not expected until 2013, the Defense Ministry in Berlin said.

Operators have only seconds to fire the missiles

German soldiers could be sent from their barracks in northern Germany to the Turkish-Syrian border. The government in Ankara is expected to make an official request for the deployment at a NATO meeting in Brussels on Monday.

One or two of the German units could make up part of a multinational system sent to Turkey. Such a deployment would “serve to protect” Turkey, said de Maiziere. But being stationed in Turkey would be more dangerous than the base in northern Germany and would risk pulling Berlin into the Syrian civil war.