Voice

Patriot Missiles Are Made in America and Fail Everywhere

The evidence is in: the missile defense system that the United States and its allies rely on is a lemon.

A Patriot Surface-to Air missile system displayed at the US airbase in Osan, south of Seoul on Oct. 12, 2008. (KIM JAE-HWAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A Patriot Surface-to Air missile system displayed at the US airbase in Osan, south of Seoul on Oct. 12, 2008. (KIM JAE-HWAN/AFP/Getty Images)

On March 25, Houthi forces in Yemen fired seven missiles at Riyadh. Saudi Arabia confirmed the launches and asserted that it successfully intercepted all seven.

This wasn’t true. It’s not just that falling debris in Riyadh killed at least one person and sent two more to the hospital. There’s no evidence that Saudi Arabia intercepted any missiles at all. And that raises uncomfortable questions not just about the Saudis, but about the United States, which seems to have sold them — and its own public — a lemon of a missile defense system.

Social media images do appear to show that Saudi Patriot batteries firing interceptors. But what these videos show are not successes. One interceptor explodes catastrophically just after launch, while another makes a U-turn in midair and then comes screaming back at Riyadh, where it explodes on the ground.

It is possible, of course, that one of the other interceptors did the job, but I’m doubtful. That is because my colleagues at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and I closely examined two different missile attacks on Saudi Arabia from November and December 2017.

In both cases, we found that it is very unlikely the missiles were shot down, despite officials’ statements to the contrary. Our approach was simple: We mapped where the debris, including the missile airframe and warhead, fell and where the interceptors were located. In both cases, a clear pattern emerged. The missile itself falls in Riyadh, while the warhead separates and flies over the defense and lands near its target. One warhead fell within a few hundred meters of Terminal 5 at Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport. The second warhead, fired a few weeks later, nearly demolished a Honda dealership. In both cases, it was clear to us that, despite official Saudi claims, neither missile was shot down. I am not even sure that Saudi Arabia even tried to intercept the first missile in November.

The point is there is no evidence that Saudi Arabia has intercepted any Houthi missiles during the Yemen conflict. And that raises a disquieting thought: Is there any reason to think the Patriot system even works?

In fairness, the system deployed in Saudi Arabia — the Patriot Advanced Capability-2 or PAC-2 — is not well designed to intercept the Burkan-2 missiles that the Houthis are firing at Riyadh. The Burkan-2 flies around 600 miles and appears to have a warhead that separates from the missile itself.

But I am deeply skeptical that Patriot has ever intercepted a long-range ballistic missile in combat — at the least, I have yet to see convincing unclassified evidence of a successful Patriot intercept. During the 1991 Gulf War, the public was led to believe the that the Patriot had near-perfect performance, intercepting 45 of 47 Scud missiles. The U.S. Army later revised that estimate down to about 50 percent — and even then, it expressed “higher” confidence in only about one-quarter of the cases. A pesky Congressional Research Service employee noted that if the Army had correctly applied its own assessment methodology consistently, the number would be far lower. (Reportedly that number was one — as in one lousy Scud missile downed.)

According to a House Committee on Government Operations investigation, there was not enough evidence to conclude that there had been any intercepts. “There is little evidence to prove that the Patriot hit more than a few Scud missiles launched by Iraq during the Gulf War,” a summary of the investigations concluded dryly, “and there are some doubts about even these engagements.”

This report — which called on the Pentagon to declassify more information about the performance of the Patriot and request an independent evaluation of the program — never saw the light of day. A fierce lobbying campaign by the Army and Raytheon spiked it, save for a summary.

Against that background, you can imagine that I was pretty skeptical of the Pentagon’s claims that the Patriot shot down Iraqi ballistic missiles in 2003 — claims that have generally been accepted uncritically. And when I heard that missile defenses were protecting Riyadh, I wanted to see for myself — and, unfortunately, I wasn’t surprised by what I found.

But if the Patriot system doesn’t work, why would the United States or the Saudi government claim otherwise?

At some level, we should be sympathetic. The basic function of a government is to provide security for its citizens. There is enormous pressure on the Saudi government to show that it is taking steps to defend its citizens. By asserting successful intercepts — assertions that are uncritically spread in headlines — the Saudi government is able to present itself as fulfilling its obligations to protect its population. And, like in 1991, the perception that a defense is working helps keep a lid on regional tensions. Just as false claims about missile defenses helped keep Israel from retaliating against Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War, perhaps the fable that Riyadh is defended makes it easier to ignore the fact that Iranian proxies are firing Iranian missiles into Saudi Arabia’s capital.

But my colleagues and I are independent analysts, not government functionaries. Our obligation is to the truth — and in this case, the truth seems to be that these systems are not working. The danger here is that leaders in Saudi Arabia and the United States will come to believe their own nonsense. Consider this: Despite that the fact that anonymous U.S. officials have confirmed that there was no successful intercept in November 2017, President Donald Trump had a very different impression: “Our system knocked the missile out of the air,” Trump told reporters the following day. “That’s how good we are. Nobody makes what we make, and now we’re selling it all over the world.” This is a theme Trump has returned to again and again. When asked about the threat from North Korea’s nuclear-armed missiles, Trump said, “We have missiles that can knock out a missile in the air 97 percent of the time, and if you send two of them, it’s going to get knocked down.” Trump has repeatedly given every indication that he believes missile defenses will protect the United States.

That’s dangerous, particularly at a moment when the Trump administration seems poised to collapse the nuclear deal with Iran and send Tehran down the same path that North Korea followed to a nuclear capability that can strike U.S. partners in the region and ultimately the United States itself. And so we need to tell the truth: Missile defense systems do not represent a solution to the challenge posed by growing missile capabilities or an escape from vulnerability in the nuclear age. There is no magic wand that can “knock down” all the missiles aimed at the United States or its allies. The only solution is to persuade countries not to build these weapons in the first place. If we fail, defenses won’t save us.

About the Author

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. @ArmsControlWonk

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. @ArmsControlWonk
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