Air Defense: Lucky 17, Unlucky 14


September 23, 2019: The tiny (778 square kilometers) Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain has become the 17th nation to purchase the American Patriot Air Defense system. Bahrain is spending $2.5 billion to obtain two Patriot batteries and 96 missiles. The purchase price includes training, tech support and help in hiring qualified foreign contractors to help with maintaining and operating Patriot. There are plenty of Arabs in the Persian Gulf who do that now. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and United Arab Emirates have been using Patriot for years and many of these Patriot batteries are operated and maintained by Arabs. Another major user of Patriot, Israel, also has some Arab speaking Patriot veterans but while Arab Gulf states have better relations with Israel, hiring Israelis to help run air defense systems is not happening just yet. In any event, Israel just introduced a new air defense system, David’s Sling, to replace its Patriot systems and eventually compete with Patriot for export sales. Currently, Patriot competes with that and some European and Russian (S-300/400) systems.

Patriot has been in service since 1984 and experienced its first sustained combat in 1990 when it was used against Iraqi ballistic missiles (SCUDs) fired at Israel and Saudi Arabia. Its success rate was mediocre at best, achieving around 40 to 70 percent. That was largely due to the modifications Iraqis made to their SCUDs to extend their range. As a result, the SCUDs had a tendency to fall apart during the terminal (speeding down towards the target) flight phase which created unintended countermeasures. Some of the larger pieces of these modified SCUDs, like additional fuel tanks, broke away and were seen by Patriot radar as the actual missile warhead section. In some cases, non-warhead portions of the SCUD came down on military or civilian personnel on the ground. Patriot has been used against UAVs but firing a $3 million dollar missile at homemade UAVs, as Israeli forces did a few times, isn’t healthy for the economy so Israel developed a cheaper solution for UAVs. For manned aircraft, the Patriot took down its first one in 2014 when an Israeli Patriot shot down a Syrian Su-24. While Patriot was originally designed for use against aircraft, most of what it has shot down have been ballistic missiles, either SCUDs or more recent Iranian designs. Since 2016 Saudi Patriot batteries have downed about a hundred ballistic missiles, most of them Iranian, fired from Yemen.

Each Patriot battery is manned by about a hundred troops, and each contains a radar and four launchers. A battery can fire two types of Patriot missile if available. For example, the PAC 2 GEM-T and PAC-3 MSE are the usual choices. The first one is older, cheaper and designed to intercept manned aircraft at ranges up to 160 kilometers, while the second is the newest and about twice as expensive (about $4 million). The PAC-3 specializes in anti-ballistic missile operations and has about 35 kilometers range against missiles or aircraft. The $4 million PAC 3 missile is smaller than the cheaper anti-aircraft version (PAC 2); thus a Patriot launcher can hold sixteen PAC 3 missiles or four PAC 2s. A PAC 2 missile weighs about a ton, a PAC 3 weighs about a third of that.

The Patriot system (with upgrades) will likely remain in production until 2040-2050. Since 1960 over 10,000 missiles and 1,500 launchers have been produced. After decades of service, some were reused and remote to new variants while others were scraped. Patriot missiles can, with regular upgrades and refurbishment, remain in use for over 40 years. A growing number of Patriot missiles are doing just that but many are still fired each year for training and testing. Most Patriot batteries are equipped with both longer range GEM-T missiles for aircraft and shorter-range PAC-3 MSE ones for ballistic missiles (or, if necessary, aircraft).

Bahrain wants Patriot for additional protection from Iran. While Bahrain is surrounded by Arab allies armed with Patriot systems they need their own, mainly for ballistic missile defense. Iran is the main threat and has been for centuries. Over the last few years, Iranian politicians have increasingly mentioned in public statements that Iran considers Bahrain the 14th province of Iran. That's because, well, it isn't called the "Persian" Gulf for nothing. Since all the oil money showed up after World War II the Arabs have been trying to popularize the term "Arabian Gulf," with mixed success. There have been ethnic Iranian communities in Bahrain for centuries, along with a Shia Arab majority, and Iran had a formal claim on the island until 1969, when the claim was dropped, in order to improve relations with Arab neighbors.

Bahrain only has a population of 1.6 million and about half of them are foreigners. Bahrain is considered a successful model of a “post-oil” economy as it has prospered by turning itself into a financial, shipping and commercial center. Bahrain allows the consumption of alcohol and a lot of Western entertainments banned in Saudi Arabia, The locals expect this but this policy also attracts a lot of Saudis and other Arabs as visitors, vacationers and shoppers. Bahrain gets over eight million tourists a year plus even more commercial visitors doing business in the island nation.

One of the major commercial activities is providing all manner of goods and services for the U.S. Navy and thousands of U.S. military personnel who are more as potential Iranian targets than additional security forces. The Bahrain military has only about 18,000 personnel and only 13,000 are full time. Many of these are foreign mercenaries or foreigners who became Bahraini citizens. Since 2011 a lot more Pakistanis have been recruited. Iran pressured Pakistan to halt that recruiting, Pakistan said it would look into it and the recruiting went on. Bahrain has long offered citizenship, and access to the generous social welfare program, to Sunni Moslem migrants who fill many civilian and military jobs. The local Shia, who are a majority of Bahrain citizens, resent this.

The defense budget is about $1.7 billion a year for a well-paid force of professionals using modern military equipment. There are several thousand foreign military contractors employed for training personnel and maintaining equipment. Since 2004 the U.S. Navy has been expanding its naval base in Bahrain. Thus the U.S. Navy has turned a minor naval station in the Persian Gulf into one of its most crucial bases for the war on terrorism. The U.S. moved into Bahrain in 1973, when the British gave it up. The Bahrainis, like most of the other small states along the west coast of the Persian Gulf, like to have some friendly Western power in residence. This provides some insurance against Saudi Arabia to the west and Iran to the east. Before 1918, the British presence helped keep the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire off their backs as well. All the Bahrainis ask is that the foreign troops be quiet and discreet.

Until 2002, the Bahraini base was a place where U.S. warships could tie up for repairs or recreation for the crews. Nearly 4,000 American military personnel were stationed there. There was an airbase for navy and air force transports and warplanes. The Bahrainis denied much of this activity, so as to avoid getting pilloried by other Arab states. But Bahrain is a small place, connected to Saudi Arabia by a 25 kilometers long causeway, and you cannot hide all that military activity.

Since 2004 over half a billion dollars has gone into building more permanent facilities for the American troops. The trailers and other "temporary structures" were replaced by more permanent buildings and infrastructure. This included a new pier just for military ships. There is a shopping center just for the military and a lot of recreational facilities for the troops. Until 2004 some troops could bring their families. But now it's all military and the brass tries to keep everyone happy on base. It's a one year tour for most and Bahrain is a pretty popular assignment. Living conditions are good, and the local Bahrainis are pretty mellow and friendly by Middle Eastern standards, at least most of the time.

Bahrain should be, on paper, an excellent place to live for all its citizens. It isn't. The Bahrani population is less than two million, including lots of illegal foreign workers who make it possible to keep the economy going without a lot of Shia. Oil and gas exports provide a per-capita income of over $26,000. The oil is running out, so Bahrain has been recasting itself as an Arab playground and financial center, replacing Beirut, Lebanon, which ceased to play that role in the late 1970-early 80s because of a civil war. Bahrain has used a lot of their oil revenue to build infrastructure and encouraged entrepreneurs to create shopping and entertainment facilities superior to anything available in the region. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Bahrain does not enforce Islamic law on visitors or residents. That's nothing new. Bahrain has, for centuries, been a port of call for ships and sailors. That means booze and women were always available. But now there are also shopping malls plus a full range of hotels, brothels, clubs, and bars. Most of the business for the entertainment spots comes from Saudi Arabia, but sailors, especially those from the 40-50 foreign warships that base themselves here, come a close second. A little over half the foreign sailors are American.

While generally peaceful, the country has many unhappy and violence-prone citizens. The problems are many. First, there is the monarchy. Although competent, many of the educated citizens would prefer a democracy. Then there's the religion angle. The monarchy is Sunni while most of the population is Shia. Moreover, about 20 percent of the population is Christian and Hindu. This offends about ten percent of the population who are Islamic conservatives. Most of these are Shia and consider all the drinking and partying sinful and offensive. Meanwhile, the police have a Shia majority that is often stirred up when the Islamic radicals get violent. Then more Shia villagers take to the streets and riot if they feel the police are being too hard on Shia Islamic radicals. This violence rarely gets into the urban and tourist areas. But at times the police have to warn visitors going outside the city to avoid certain towns and villages. Because so many of the police are Shia the government cannot always depend on the cops to control large scale rioting by Shia civilians. Since 2013 a new, entirely Sunni, security force has been created.

American military personnel are warned which areas they should avoid and when there is the threat of major unrest in some parts of the small island kingdom. While the local Shia re still unhappy, there is less unrest as the government seeks to improve the lives of the Shia majority.


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