Speculations around the capabilities of the U.S.-made Patriot missile defense system arose in light of the most recent attack against oil facilities in Saudi Arabia.
Questions have abounded all week as to how Saudi Arabia, the planet’s third-highest defense spender and steward of the world’s largest oil facility, allowed itself to fall victim to a drone and missile attack that wiped out half of its crude production in a day.
Dubbed “the world’s best,” the Patriots failed to intercept the latest drone attack targeting Aramco oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, forcing the oil-rich kingdom to slash its daily output in half.
When asked why the Patriot failed to block the alleged drone attack, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seemed to cede that the U.S.-made defense missile system had a “blindspot,” brushing off the incident by saying that “even the world’s best air defense systems sometimes fail.”
Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who have been at war with a Saudi-Emirati coalition since 2015, claimed responsibility for the coordinated attacks on two Saudi Aramco facilities, but it’s unclear that the Houthis alone possess the capacity for long-range, precision-guided strikes.
It’s possible the attacks involved far-flying drones firing small, guided munitions. The Aramco sites are around 800 miles from the Saudi Arabia-Yemen border. Iran’s hard-line Revolutionary Guard Corps in the past has supplied the Houthis with weaponry including drones and components for ballistic missiles.
The United States, Saudi Arabia’s key ally and largest arms supplier, says the attacks were launched from Iran, which denies its involvement.
“A lot of what Saudi Arabia buys doesn’t provide defence against these sorts of attacks. It has a lot of battle tanks, helicopters and jets. But they are not effective against such incoming missiles,” says Dr Mauro Gilli, a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies in Zurich.
The American-made Patriot defence system used by Saudi Arabia to protect its borders and key installations hasn’t been effective in shooting down terrain-hugging cruise missiles.
That’s because the surface-to-air Patriots were essentially designed to intercept ballistic missiles, which rocket into the Earth’s atmosphere before coming down to hit the intended target with an explosive payload.
“Cruise missiles can fly at a very low altitude and they are small, making them difficult to be detected,” says Gilli.
But one thing is clear. The attack revealed the limits of Saudi Arabia’s seemingly sophisticated air-defense system. Riyadh in recent years has spent billions of dollars building up six battalions of U.S.-made Patriot surface-to-air missiles and associated radars. The Patriots didn’t stop the recent attack.
And it wasn’t the first time Saudi Arabia’s Patriots have failed. At least five Patriots apparently missed, malfunctioned or otherwise failed when Saudi forces tried to intercept a barrage of rockets targeting Riyadh on March 25, 2018.
Houthi forces fired at least seven rockets at Saudi Arabia that night. The Saudi military launched Patriot Advanced Capability-2 missiles in an attempt to destroy the Houthi rockets in mid-air. The Saudis claimed seven of the Patriots struck their targets.
One man reportedly died after being struck by metal fragments. It’s unclear whether the fragments came from a malfunctioning Patriot, a successful intercept or a Houthi rockets striking the ground.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday offered to help Saudi Arabia protect its people and oil infrastructure by selling the kingdom Russian-made air defense system. He Advises Saudi Arabia To Buy S-300 If They Want To Protect Oil Fields.
Saudi Arabia had previously expressed its intention to purchase Russian-made S-400 missile defense systems.
Riyadh seems to realize it needs better missile defenses. “Saudi Arabia has been in talks to acquire the same S-400 advanced air-defense system that Turkey recently bought from Russia,” Marc Champion wrote for Bloomberg.
The Russian weapon, though little tested in combat, has technical advantages over U.S. Patriots. It has a range of 400 kilometers (250 miles), versus the Patriot’s 160 kilometers, can destroy targets moving twice as fast and can be mounted for action in five minutes, compared with an hour for a Patriot battery. …
Russia pairs its S-400s with the smaller Pantsir-S1 system, to handle low flying and short-range missiles that would slip past the larger ballistic missile defense system. Though Russia has deployed S-400s in northwestern Syria, it has used the Pantsir system to counter-drone strikes.
“Ideally, the Saudis need layered defenses, including short-range point defense systems like the German Skyshield or Russian Pantsir to allow rapid engagements of small threats with cheaper systems than the massively expensive Patriot,” Justin Bronk, research fellow for airpower and technology at the U.K.’s Royal United Services Institute, told Champion.