Air Defense: The Most Experienced Missile Defense Crews


December 22, 2021: Saudi Arabia is seeking several hundred Patriot PAC-3 anti-missile missiles from the United States and EU (European Union) nations to replace several hundred Pac-3 missiles used to intercept nearly 150 Iranian ballistic missiles fired by Iran-backed Shia rebels in Yemen. Some of those missiles failed on launch and no PAC-3 missiles were launched. In many cases the Saudis fire two PAC-3s at each incoming target to ensure interception. So far none of the Iranian missiles have hit their targets, at least not on purpose. Some interceptions take place over Saudi cities or urban areas and the debris from the PAC-3 and ballistic missiles must land somewhere, and sometimes those land on structures. There have been some casualties from this, including a few deaths.

The last resupply of PAC 3 missiles the Saudis received was 200 of them in 2020. These were to replace missiles used since 2016 to take down Iranian 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 south to defend against the Yemen threat. 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 radars. The Iranians said the attack came from the Shia 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 and has ordered radars from the U.S. that are designed to detect low and slow threats.

The Iranians are having a harder time smuggling the ballistic missile components into Yemen, where they are assembled by Iranian advisors and local Shia rebels. Currently about ten of these ballistic missiles are being fired at Saudi targets each month, including some longer-range missiles that can reach the Saudi capital a thousand kilometers away. The success of the Saudi Patriot ABM efforts has caused the Iranians to smuggle in more of their UAVs, which are assembled with explosive warheads and use GPS coordinates to guide these low and slow targets towards targets in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. These improvised cruise missiles are a lot cheaper than ballistic missiles and so far, have been more successful. They do less damage than a ballistic missile and the Saudis are seeking cheaper air defense systems to deal with them. Currently the Saudis use AMRAAM air-to-air missiles fired from jet fighters to intercept a lot of these cruise missiles. These missiles cost about half a million dollars each, which is a lot more than the target’s cost. The current PAC-3 missile costs $4 million each.

While the Saudis already have 24 Patriot batteries, this proved insufficient to protect it from the growing number of Iranian threatened and actual attacks. from Yemen and Iran.

Since 2018 most of the Saudi batteries have been deployed in the south, near the Yemen border where Iran-backed Shia rebels have been using Iranian ballistic and cruise missiles against the Saudis for several years. The Patriot systems have been successful in intercepting over a hundred of these attacks. 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 their work, especially against ballistic missiles.

Patriot has been in service since 1984 and experienced its first sustained combat in 1990, when it was used against Iraqi SCUD ballistic missiles fired at Israel and Saudi Arabia. Its success rate, 40 to 70 percent, was mediocre at best. That was largely due to the improvised modifications Iraqis made to their SCUDs to extend their range. As a result, the SCUDs tended 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. Subsequent upgrades to Patriot increased accuracy against deliberate or accidental countermeasures.

Patriot has been used against UAVs but firing a $3-4 million dollar missile at homemade UAV cruise missiles, as Israeli forces did a few times, isn’t healthy for the economy so Israel developed cheaper solutions for UAVs. The Saudis are quietly negotiating with Israel to obtain some of the Israeli air defense systems designed to deal with UAVs. The Saudis have also expressed interest in the new Israeli David’s Sling system, which is often described as an improved Patriot

Patriot, although initially designed to use against manned aircraft, did not face this threat very often and it wasn’t until 2014 that Patriot downed a hostile aircraft; a Syrian Su-24 fighter-bomber. 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. The UAE sent a battery to Yemen after 2015, where it successfully defended major military bases from ballistic missiles. Arab Patriot users have developed a lot of missile crews with combat experience and that has helped attract capable recruits to air-defense units, which is usually seen as less prestigious than traditional service with ground, air, and naval combat units.

Since 1970 over 10,000 Patriot missiles and 1,500 launchers for more than 240 Patriot batteries have been produced. After decades of service, some missiles were updated while others were scrapped. Patriot missiles can, with regular upgrades and refurbishment, remain in service 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 PAC-2 GEM-T missiles for aircraft and some ballistic missiles. The shorter-range PAC-3 MSE was designed specifically for use against ballistic missiles and only, if necessary, against aircraft. The PAC 2 is older, cheaper, and designed to intercept manned aircraft at ranges up to 160 kilometers plus ballistic missiles at much shorter ranges. The PAC 3 is the newest Patriot missile, about twice as expensive (over $4 million) as the earlier PAC-2 and far more effective against ballistic missiles. The Patriot system, with continued upgrades, will likely remain in production until the 2040s.

Each Patriot battery is manned by about a hundred troops and contains a radar, plus four launchers. The launcher is designed to use both the smaller PAC 3 missile as well as the original and larger PAC 2 anti-aircraft version. 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 that was originally 20 kilometers but the latest version can do 35 kilometers. Saudi Patriot batteries use both PAC 2 and 3 missiles but only began receiving PAC 3 missiles in 2017. Before that the only PAC-3 missiles in Saudi Arabia were with two or more American Patriot batteries that have been based in Saudi Arabia for decades. These batteries are rotated in and out of Saudi Arabia as part of an American effort to practice rapid deployment of batteries to Saudi Arabia in a wartime emergency.

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. Many Arab Gulf state have had Iranian minorities for centuries. Since nearly all Iranians are Shia Moslem, those living on the Arab side of the Gulf have attracted many Arabs to the Shia form of Islam. As a result, Bahrain has 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. All the Arab states bordering the Gulf have Shia minorities, except Iraq and Bahrain which have Shia majorities.

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 included 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 most of these Patriot batteries are operated and maintained by Arabs.

The Saudis also sought to borrow additional Patriot batteries from NATO nations. Greece agreed to help. Greece has been using Patriot since 2003, about as long as the Saudis. In April 2021 Greece signed an agreement to send one of its six Patriot Air Defense batteries to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis requested the Patriot battery in 2019 and Greece initially agreed, but delayed sending the Patriot battery because their eastern neighbor, Turkey, suddenly became more of a threat. That threat subsided and the battery arrived in September 2o21 with a complete Greek crew of 120 soldiers. These Greeks expect to learn something from Saudi Patriot crews, who have the most Patriot combat experience of any in the world.




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