Incirlik Air Base, Turkey – Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta signed an official deployment order on Friday to send 400 American military personnel and two Patriot air defense batteries to Turkey as cross-border tensions with Syria intensify.
The American batteries will be part of a broader push to beef up Turkey’s defenses that will also include the deployment of four other Patriot batteries — two from Germany and two from the Netherlands.
All six units will be under NATO’s command and are scheduled to be operational by the end of January, according to officials in Washington.
George Little, the Pentagon spokesman, said Mr. Panetta signed the order as he flew from Afghanistan to this air base in southern Turkey, close to the border with Syria.
“The United States has been supporting Turkey in its efforts to defend itself,” Mr. Little said.
The order “will deploy some 400 U.S. personnel to Turkey to support two Patriot missile batteries,” Mr. Little added, and the personnel and Patriot batteries will arrive in Turkey “in coming weeks.” He did not disclose where the Patriots would be located.
After landing at Incirlik Friday, Mr. Panetta told a gathering of American Air Force personnel of his decision to deploy the Patriots.
He said the United States was working with Turkey, Jordan and Israel to monitor Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons, and warned of “serious consequences” if Syria used them, but he did not offer any specifics.
“We have drawn up plans for presenting to the president,” Mr. Panetta said. “We have to be ready.”
Turkey, which has been supporting the Syrian opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, has been worried it is vulnerable to Syrian missiles, including Scuds that might be tipped with chemical weapons. Those concerns were heightened by reports of increased activity at some of Syria’s chemical sites, though Mr. Panetta said this week that intelligence about chemical weapons activity in Syria had “leveled off.”
The recent Scud missile attacks mounted by forces loyal to Mr. Assad against rebels in northern Syria have only added to Turkey’s concerns. The Scud missiles fired at the rebels were armed with conventional warheads, but the attacks showed that the Assad government is prepared to use missiles as it struggles to slow rebel gains.
Syria denied Thursday that it had fired Scud missiles this week. But NATO’s secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said that the intelligence gathered by the alliance indicated that they were Scud-type missiles. “In general, I think the regime in Damascus is approaching collapse,” he said. “I think now it’s only a question of time.”
NATO foreign ministers last week endorsed the decision to send Patriot batteries to Turkey. The details of how many each nation would send were not worked out until this week, officials said.
In preparation for the deployment, allied officials had conducted surveys of 10 potential sites, mostly in southeastern Turkey, that could be defended by one or more Patriot batteries.
But NATO nations do not have enough batteries to cover all of the sites. With tensions building with Iran and North Korea defying the United States and its Asian allies by launching a long-range rocket, American officials did not want to send more than a few Patriot batteries to Turkey, especially since it is not clear how long they will be needed.
But NATO diplomats said that the goal was to show enough of a commitment to Turkey’s defense to deter a Syrian attack.
It will take three weeks to ship and deploy the two American Patriot batteries, a Defense Department official said.
One allied official said it might be possible to speed up the deployment of the German and Dutch batteries if necessary. Each of those nations will also send up to 400 troops.
The United States, Germany and the Netherlands are the only NATO members that have the advanced PAC-3 Patriot system.
The Patriot batteries in Turkey will be linked to NATO’s air-defense system. The response by the missile batteries would be nearly automatic, firing interceptor missiles to destroy the target by ramming into it, a tactic the military calls “hit to kill.”