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American Missile Defenses' Repeated Combat Failures; Implications for East Asia and the Middle East - Part Three

June 01st - 2018

Image Credit : Ralph Scott/Missile Defense Agency/U.S. Department of Defense

The missile launched by Yemen's Ansurallah forces against Saudi Arabia had targeted Riyadh's King Khalid International Airport, and was shown by satellite imagery not to have been neutralised in the air but rather to have landed nearby. The warhead reportedly detonated successfully just twelve miles from the country's airport - startling passengers. Analysis of photos and videos of the strike widely posted on social media confirm this. Analysis conducted by a research team of missile experts showed the missile’s warhead flew unimpeded over Saudi Arabia despite its larger arsenal of modern Patriot batteries - systems heavily relied on to protect the country's airspace from massive and far more sophisticated attacks from Iran in the event of war. The researchers concluded that the missile came close to its target. Jeffrey Lewis, the analyst who led the research team, stated regarding the failure of the U.S. Patriot system to perform even the most basic interception and the depiction of failure as a victory: “Governments lie about the effectiveness of these systems. Or they’re misinformed. And that should worry the hell out of us.” U.S. officials have also seriously questioned the Saudi claim that the missile had been intercepted, pointing to considerable evidence to the contrary.

For the United States, presenting its air defence systems as far more capable than they actually are serves far greater purposes than the ludicrous arms sales of the multi billion dollar system to 14 countries. Depicting a victory for U.S. military technology has been of great benefit, from Desert Storm in 1991 accompanied by widespread reports of the Patriot's 'miracle performance' to 2017 with the President's statement "That’s how good we are. Nobody makes what we make." Saudi targets were left unscathed not because the Patriot succeeded but rather because Yemen’s crude Scud B variant failed. Had Yemen had access to modern missile technologies, more competent and better trained operators or a larger arsenal this could well have ended very differently. Against adversaries with far more sophisticated and modern missile platforms - the Russian 9K720 Iskander, North Korean Musudan or its variant in Iranian service the Khorramshahr - not only would the Patriot prove even less capable of interception but, more importantly, the ballistic missiles would have a far higher accuracy and hit faster, further away and with a greater payload. Some advanced missiles such as the Soviet R-27 could even impact with multiple warheads  maximising destruction while making them yet more difficult to intercept. While there was hope that the Patriot had become more reliable since the Gulf War and could now serve as a viable air defence platform, its recent operations have proven that this is far from the case.

Saudi Arabia and the U.S. were not the only parties which combat tested the Patriot, and Israel in February 2018 deployed these same air defence batteries to shoot down a hostile drone, allegedly of Iranian origin, over its territory. While Iran is hardly a world leading producer of combat drones, and the relatively unsophisticated target should have been made short work of by the state of the art U.S. made air defence battery, two attempts to down the target with Patriot missiles failed. The Israeli Defence Force was forced to improvise adopt a less conventional approach, and targeted and destroyed the drone using an attack helicopter. While this proved successful, it would not have been an option had the target been a ballistic missile or a combat aircraft. This was hardly the first time Israeli Patriot batteries had failed to protect its airspace from drones launched by Iran or its allies, with a Hezbollah drone reportedly evading three rounds from Patriot batteries over the Golan Heights in 2016. Again the vulnerability of Patriot operators to large missile strikes on their territory was thereby demonstrated.

It remains critical for the United States to provide its partners and military clients with a sense of security, however false, so as to support U.S. policy objectives against powerful neighbouring military forces. Saudi Arabia is emboldened to confront Iran, and recent propaganda pieces from the kingdom have indicated a sense of near invulnerability to Iranian missile strikes as a result of the country’s Patriot missile defence systems. Japan and South Korea are in the same way made somewhat more lenient towards U.S. threats to strike North Korea and bring about inevitable retaliation as a result of the false sense of security brought about by U.S. missile defence systems such as the Patriot. Were these U.S. partners aware that well over 90% of North Korean or Iranian missiles would be successful in targeting their cities, and that Patriot and other such systems would be almost entirely ineffective, they may well prove less compliant with U.S. moves against its regional military adversaries which risk devastating Seoul, Riyadh, Tokyo and several other highly vulnerable civilian targets. With Japanese and South Korean cities being among the most densely populated in the world, highly ludicrous targets from which millions of casualties would be expected if struck by a sizeable conventional payload alone, let alone nuclear or chemical weapons, the two Asian powers’ inability to rely on U.S. missile defences has significant implications for the way they conduct their foreign policies. Saudi Arabia and Israel too will need to take such factors into account amid escalating tension with Iran, with populations of both countries being well within range of the Iranian arsenal far more dangerous than its drones even if the country lacks weapons of mass destruction to mount on them.


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