Air Defense: Greek Missiles Defend Arabia

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February 28, 2020: Greece is sending one of its six Patriot Air Defense batteries to Saudi Arabia, as is the United States, which is also sending four Sentinel radar systems that can detect low flying cruise missiles and UAVs. While the Saudis already have 24 Patriot batteries, that has proved insufficient to protect it from the growing number of Iranian attacks. Greece has been using Patriot since 2003, about as long as the Saudis. Most of the Saudi batteries are used in the south, along the Yemen border. Many other nations in the region also use Patriot, including Egypt, Israel and most Arab Persian Gulf nations. Patriot batteries have been used in the Persian Gulf since 1991 and have had plenty of opportunities to demonstrate they work, especially against ballistic missiles.

Greece had earlier been asked to send a Patriot battery to Saudi Arabia but declined to do so because their eastern neighbor, Turkey, had become more threatening. But two months after Iranian UAVs and cruise missiles attacked Saudi Arabia, Greece found itself involved with another Turkish threat. The Turks were claiming control of waters off the Greek coast that are recognized as Greek and many control large natural gas deposits. Turkey, Greece and the U.S. are all NATO members but the U.S. and other NATO members all oppose Turkish threats against fellow NATO member Greece as well as the Turkish troops in Libya.

Turkey triggered this crisis by sending troops and military aid to Libya in order to get one of the two governments there, the GNA, to sign an agreement that claims all the offshore waters between Libya and Turkey, including offshore waters that international agreements recognize as Greek. Turkey is also in Libya illegally as UN embargoes prohibit this. That intervention has Turks fighting Russians, who back the rival HoR government and its LNA (Libyan National Army) that now controls most of the country and has eliminated most local Islamic terror groups. The Turks and the UN back the GNA faction, which is more “Islamic”, chaotic and militarily weak. Turkey now threatens to send as many troops and weapons to Libya as necessary to win. At the same time, Turkey continues to threaten war with Greece over the offshore claims. In Syria Turkish and Russian forces, which are supposed to be allies, are now fighting each other. Given this new situation the Greeks, who currently import all their petroleum, could use improved relations with Saudi Arabia, the largest exporter of oil in the world. Finding and developing offshore natural gas deposits is crucial for Greece and with Turkey blocking these efforts gaining a Persian Gulf ally, especially one that is already hostile to Turkey, is justified.

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, mostly Iranian fired from Yemen.

Since 1970 over 10,000 Patriot missiles and 1,500 launchers have been produced. After decades of service, some were updated 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). The PAC 2 is older, cheaper and designed to intercept manned aircraft at ranges up to 160 kilometers, while the PAC 3 is the newest and about twice as expensive (about $4 million). The Patriot system (with upgrades) will likely remain in production until 2040-2050.

Each Patriot battery is manned by about a hundred troops and contains a radar, plus four launchers. A battery can fire two types of Patriot missiles. The more expensive PAC 3 missile is smaller than the anti-aircraft version (PAC 2), thus a Patriot launcher can hold sixteen PAC 3 missiles, versus four PAC 2s. A PAC 2 missile weighs about a ton, a PAC 3 weighs about a third of that. The PAC 3 has a shorter range (about 20 kilometers (although the latest version can do 35 kilometers) versus 160 kilometers for the latest anti-aircraft version. Saudi Patriot batteries use both PAC 2 and 3 missiles but only began receiving PAC 3 missiles in 2018.

Arab Gulf states want Patriot for additional protection from Iran, which is the main threat and has been for centuries. Over the last few years, Iranian politicians have increasingly made public statements that the Saudis are unfit to be the guardians and operators of the most sacred Moslem shrines at Mecca. Iran also 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. Except for Iraq and Bahrain, all the Arab states bordering the gulf have Shia minorities.

The Saudis recently received another 200 PAC 3 missiles to replace Patriot missiles used since 2016 to defend against Iranian ballistic missiles fired from northern Yemen. Iran has backed the Shia rebels there for nearly a decade. To deal with this threat most Saudi Patriot batteries have been moved to defend against the missiles fired from Yemen. Suddenly, in September 2019, the threat appeared in the north when Iran launched an attack on Saudi oil facilities using cruise missiles and UAVs equipped with explosives. These came in low and slow and evaded Saudi air defense radars. The Iranians said the attack came from the Shia rebels in Yemen but the evidence, including fragments of the cruise missiles and UAVs, said otherwise. Saudi Arabia is trying to protect itself from more Iranian attacks using any kind of aerial weapon.

In 2019 Saudi neighbor Bahrain became the 17th nation to purchase Patriot Air Defense systems. Bahrain spent $2.5 billion to obtain two Patriot batteries and 96 missiles. The purchase price includes training, tech support and assistance 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.

The U.S. has no bases in Saudi Arabia but does have some in Kuwait, Qatar the UAE and Bahrain. The most important single base is in Bahrain. 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 U.S. has defensive weapons for its bases and Bahrain is buying more weapons to protect the rest of the small island nation.

 


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