BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Sending Patriot missiles to Turkey has a hidden benefit for Europe's shrinking armed forces: it helps them to justify expensive and little-used weapons systems at a time when their governments are slashing military spending.
The German and Dutch armies have both held media opportunities to show off their deployment of two Patriot missile batteries and up to 400 personnel each in response to Turkey's request for NATO to bolster security along its 900-km (560-mile) border with Syria.
Syrian shells have repeatedly landed inside Turkish territory during the 21-month insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad, drawing Turkish retaliation and fanning fears that the Syrian civil war could spread.
The Patriots, anti-missile systems intended to counter any threat from Syrian Scud missiles, will guard three southeastern Turkish cities. The United States is also sending a pair of batteries; all are expected to be operational by February.
The deployment provides the Europeans with the perfect argument that there is a need for their sophisticated systems and highly-trained operators, sending a signal to austerity-hit governments that might be seeking further defense cuts.
"It does show that a capacity like this is relevant," said General Tom Middendorp, commander of the Dutch armed forces.
Ballistic missiles and laser technology pose a growing threat, he told reporters as the Dutch Patriots set off for Turkey on trucks on Monday. "Having modern missile defense systems at our disposal is therefore by no means a luxury,"
Governments across Western Europe, wrestling with an economic crisis and ballooning budget deficits, have already slashed defense spending, a politically easier target than social services, particularly as Europe faces no pressing military threat.
The Dutch government said in April 2011 it would cut 12,000 Defense Ministry jobs and scale back its fleet of tanks and fighter jets to save 1 billion euros.
Even relatively prosperous Germany is cutting its military as it moves from a conscript to a professional army. It is halving its current total of 24 Patriot batteries.
Washington has voiced concern about the growing chasm in capabilities between the U.S. military and its European allies.
Edward Hunt, a defense expert at IHS Jane's Consulting, said the Patriots were "probably less likely to be used than maybe infantry equipment or reconnaissance aircraft or transport aircraft or naval vessels, which are used almost constantly. The missiles are only used in extremis or as a deterrent".
But he warned that if governments got rid of them, "you also lose all the skills and capabilities of the crew and that takes a lot longer to get back into readiness".
Patriots, which can be used to intercept aircraft, ballistic missiles, cruise missiles or drones, do not come cheap.
The U.S. administration notified the U.S. Congress last July of a possible sale to Kuwait of 60 Patriot PAC-3 missiles and associated gear in a deal worth up to $4.2 billion.
Raytheon is the prime contractor for the Patriot system and Lockheed Martin produces the PAC-3 missile.
The Dutch military, at least, has never fired a Patriot in anger. "We have done several operations - in Turkey twice and Israel once - but it was never needed to fire a missile," Middendorp said.
Additional reporting by Sabine Siebold in Berlin; Editing by Kevin Liffey