This Is How the Missiles That Nato's Deployed Actually, Y'Know, Work

By Chris Mills on at

OMG! Quick! Nato's deployed missiles against Syria! It's all escalating and the world's going to end, break out the tinned food and the nuclear shelter! Before you get your apocalyptic knickers in a twist though, it's worth having a look at what sort of missiles exactly Nato's given to Turkey as an early Christmas present.

Just to get things straight, the basic facts are: Turkey, which shares a border with Syria, is feeling miffed that they've been on the receiving end of weapons fired from Syria. As a precautionary measure, Turkey asked the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (which yes, the UK is part of) to deploy defensive missiles to Turkey. The bigwigs in NATO agreed, and Germany and the Netherlands are sending some of their super-expensive PAC-3 Patriot missile batteries to Turkey.


The Basics
Patriot missile launch

The basic premise of the Patriot system (Phased Array Tracking Intercept Of Target, yet another example of a horrifically shoehorned acronym) is really quite simple: use your own missiles to shoot down stuff headed at you. Originally, the "stuff headed at you" was meant to be planes; by now, the major threat is other missiles, like the Soviet-made Scud missiles Saddam Hussein used to be so fond of (Syria's also got some lying around). Though it might sound simple, it's actually really, really difficult to make two Mach-5 objects hit into each other.

The Patriot system is made up of four key components: the radar, the missiles (in big truck-shaped launchers), the control centre with all the radios, and a massive set of generators to power everything. It's not a small set-up, and each Patriot battery deploys with around 100 soldiers to make everything work.


How it all fits together

The radar is the key thing in the Patriot system. It's the first component in the chain: it detects any nasty incoming missiles within an approximate 100km radius, and then feeds information about its range, altitude, size, and shape (and probably whether it prefers tea or coffee) back to the central control station. This is a big Portakabin, which contains bank after bank of computers, and space for a few operators. Once data about targets is fed back to it, the operators decide whether or not to blow stuff out of the sky.

Once authorisation is given, everything starts happening. The computer bring the missile launchers into "operate" mode; and locks onto the target with the radar. Once the computer decides the time is perfect, the system fires the missiles (normally two missiles are fired at each target; after all, we wouldn't want anything to actually survive).

For the first part of their flight, the missiles are directed by a radio link with the control centre. The radar tracks both the target and the missiles themselves, and like a naughty air traffic controller, the computer tries to co-ordinate everything to make the two missiles collide. Once the missiles get near to the target, they switch on their own radars, embedded in the nose, to guide them in the last part of the way. This close-in guidance is crucial, because the missiles actually have to physically collide with their targets; unlike most anti-air missiles, which just blow up near the targets and hope to destroy them, the Patriot missiles do a proper kamikaze and fly straight through the nose of the target missile, hopefully obliterating it. That's the idea, anyway; the missiles don't always work.


Why it isn't always that simple

Phew; that's quite a long process, all just to shoot down a missile. Now remember, that all has to happen at several times the speed of sound, and literally within seconds. Adding to the complexity, the Patriot system can engage multiple targets at once (because like London buses, hostile missiles all tend to arrive at once), with the radar simeltaneously tracking up to 100 targets and 9 missiles, all at the same time. Think Missile Defence but without the sexy graphics.


Your Bonus Fun Facts

- Although its accuracy in the 1991 Gulf War was questionable, it seemed to be rather good at shooting things down in 2003: Patriot systems were responsible for downing a RAF Tornado and an American F-18 during the 2003 Iraq War. Hopefully, if it can shoot down our own planes, it'll work against Syria.

- Each launcher contains 16 missiles, and at somewhere between 5 to 8 launchers per battery, that's a good 80 missiles just sitting around.

- Once you've fired off all your missiles, it takes a freaking crane to reload the batteries -- no slick reloads here, I'm afraid.

- Each missile costs in the £1 million range -- that's a helluva lot of money

- Though the radar has a range of a good 100km, the missiles themselves are only good out to 15km. This means that the number of Patriot batteries NATO would need to effectively defend Turkey's borders would be really rather high.