The matter of the possible ‘closure’ of the Incirlik base, which has always been on the agenda in every turbulent period in Turkish-American relations, has come up once again in the previous days. This time, the new turbulent period started with the Turkish acquisition of Russian S-400 systems and resulted in expelling Turkey from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. At a time where it is not still clear whether the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) would be imposed to Turkey, President Erdoğan stated in his speech in a live TV broadcast two weeks ago that, both Incirlik Air Base and the Kürecik ballistic missile radar site would be subject to closure if the USA imposes sanctions against Turkey. Is this statement however a ploy for domestic politics or is Turkey considering this option as a trump card for international relations?
Unlike the Incirlik Base, which has lost its strategic importance for many years, the missile defense early warning radar in Kürecik serves indeed a very important role in NATO’s Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) Mission. Therefore, Erdoğan’s wish to use this radar as a trump card may seem logical to his strategy. But is that really the case?
In 2009 former U.S. President Obama announced a new approach for regional BMD operations called the Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA). The first application of this approach is in Europe and is called the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA). For the first phase of EPAA, an AN/TPY-2 X-Band radar was positioned in Kürecik, Turkey (a.k.a Site K) and BMD capable Aegis destroyers deployed to the Mediterranean. Phase 2 involved establishing the Aegis Ashore site in Romania, which declared its initial operational capability in May 2016, with SM-3 Block IB interceptors, increasing the defended area significantly. Phase 3 of EPAA involves establishing Aegis Ashore site in Poland with more capable SM-3 Block IIA interceptors probably till 2020.
In parallel, NATO decided at the 2010 Lisbon Summit to expand its legacy Active Layered Theater Ballistic Missile Defense (ALTBMD) program and wanted to alter it to a program that provides protection to all Alliance territory and populations in Europe against ballistic missiles. This mission was named as NATO Ballistic Missile Defence and the backbone of NATO BMD was and still is EPAA. In order to understand the importance of this radar for EPAA, therefore for NATO BMD, I would like to give a brief, yet not so technical background information.
When a ballistic missile is launched, it is initially detected by satellites with IR sensors. Nevertheless, this initial warning from the satellites does not provide necessary and precise information to the interceptor systems. In this case, ballistic missile tracking radars like TPY-2 come into play. This radar thereafter acquires the target and passes the necessary information to the interceptor systems, namely Aegis. Aegis tracks the target missiles by its SPY-1 radar and fires the interceptor missiles (i.e. SM-3) for a ‘hit to kill’ destruction. Hence the TPY-2 radar plays a critical role in this data network-intensive kill chain. But what happens if this radar is removed from the cycle? Could the ballistic missiles not be intercepted?
Yes, they still can be. However, the success of the mission would be severely degraded. Intercepting a very fast missile with another missile is a very complex process that requires overcoming some technical challenges associated with ‘hitting a bullet with a bullet’. The four key technical challenges in missile defence are target acquisition, discrimination, interception, and data networking. These powerful X-Band radars provide a solution not only to early target acquisition but also discriminate incoming warheads or missiles from the separated rocket booster stage or a penetration decoy. Target discrimination is essential in order not to waste interceptors by shooting at missile junk or decoys, which is especially important when we think how expensive those interceptors are. Time is possibly the most important factor in effective discrimination since early discrimination and timely data relay would increase the probability of intercept. Therefore, when we take out the radar in Kürecik from the cycle, the probability of a successful intercept would be reduced.
At this point, we should not forget the fact that Turkey shares a border with a regional adversary, Iran, which possesses an advancing ballistic missile arsenal that puts Turkey at risk. Turkey is indeed within range of many of Iran’s short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. Furthermore, NATO BMD officially defines the target as the threats emanating from outside the Euro-Atlantic area and it is not directed against Russia. So, Turkey itself is, in fact, the primary country that requires that crucial information coming from the radar for a successful defence. Considering the relatively short ranges and fly times of incoming threat missiles from the Middle East area, the Aegis ships deployed into the Mediterranean in a possible crisis scenario could only intercept those ballistic missiles when they timely receive the required information. The available intercept window is very limited for a successful kill and no doubt will be more limited if an attack may occur to Turkey. There are some other onboard radars from Aegis ships and Aegis Ashore systems. For a missile going beyond the west of Turkey, those on-board SPY-1 radars may substitute the role of TPY-2 radar but there would be a significant defence gap over Turkish soil.
A possible scenario that could lead to the closure of the Kürecik radar would undoubtedly harm the NATO BMD, which is considered as a very important and a strategic capability by NATO. But most important of all, it would stab the dagger to NATO’s collective defence. Many people already think that Turkey’s S-400 acquisition was a lunge against solidarity. So that kind of move would cause another ‘crisis of trust’ within a very short time.
Although Site K is crucial for NATO BMD, it is not indispensable or irreplaceable at all. As it is a mobile platform, TPY-2 radar could easily be deployed to another place, albeit with less effectivity. On the other hand, U.S Navy is currently working on a new Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR), also designated as SPY-6(V)1, which is allegedly at least 100 times more sensitive than the current SPY-1 radar. This radar is expected to be deployed in Aegis destroyers in about 2023. Besides, the latest version of SM-3, Blok IIA missiles are significantly faster and have more range than their predecessors. Thus, these developments would compensate for the deficiencies emanating from a possible TPY-2 replacement. Nevertheless, such a decision from a Turkish government would more be a waiver from its own defence than a deficiency in European missile defence. I am not sure if Turkey would squeeze its own feet but I think this statement from Erdoğan was only a ‘butter’ for domestic politics and not based on a rational reason.
Despite Turkey’s axis shift toward Russia and the rising ‘Euroasianist’ tendencies among the security and government officials, I still think that Erdoğan’s advisors would try to discourage him from taking such a decision, which would otherwise basically tear off Turkey from NATO. Or at least I hope they would do that. Hope never dies!
* Bahri Kosar is a non-resident fellow at Beyond the Horizon ISSG.
 Whitmore S., Deni J. (2013) NATO Missile Defense and the European Phased Adaptive Approach: the Implications of Burden Sharing and the Underappreciated Role of the U.S. Army, Strategic Studies Institute (SSI), U.S. Army War Collage Press, p.11-13