Correction: This story has been updated to accuratedly identify the owners of the 100 Patriots.
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Patriot batteries owned by Arab partners in the Middle East have intercepted more than 100 tactical ballistic missiles launched from Yemen since the Saudi-led war against Iranian-backed Houthis began in 2015, according to U.S. prime contractor Raytheon.
That number, which appears on the Raytheon website, is much larger than publicly available data from think tanks, the Saudi government or the other eight Mideast and African nations fighting in the Saudi-led coalition against Iranian-backed militias loyal to former Yemeni President Al Abdullah Saleh.
The Missile Defense Project of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies shows 40 interceptions and 18 strikes since the war began Saudi-Iranian proxy war began in March 2015. However, the group did include the latest Patriot intercept of a Yemen-launched tactical ballistic missile on Nov. 4, which indicates its data is not completely up to date or inclusive.
Accounts sympathetic to the Yemeni cause posted on social media have assessed tactical ballistic missiles launches at 93. But that figure does not distinguish between strikes and successful interceptions and is widely believed to be inflated.
But in a Nov. 15 interview, Riki Ellison, chairman and founder of the Alexandria, VA-based Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, not only confirmed Raytheon’s 100-plus figure, but insisted it was a conservative count. “Between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, there have been over 150 intercepts of Yemen-launched missiles,” said Ellison.
When asked to define the ratio between successful intercepts and TBM threats that leaked through the active defense, Ellison said he did not have that data. “I don’t know about leakage, but over 150 intercepts in combat is impressive,” he said.
A U.S. source clarified that all of the intercepts took place in the skies of Saudi Arabia or in Yemen, where UAE air defenders forward-deployed Patriot PAC-3 batteries. Arab coalition forces have publicly acknowledged just a few successful intercepts over Yemen, the last one of record in June 2016 when rebels in the country’s south launched east of the capital city of Sanaa.
And while the coalition never identified which partner nation conducted that intercept, sources from the U.S. and another country in the region attributed that successful engagement to Emerati air defenders operating the Patriot PAC-3. The UAE’s forward-deployed Patriots in Yemen, those sources said, was a direct lesson from the September 2015 SS-21 attack launched from southern Yemen that killed dozens of Emerati and Yemeni soldiers in the center of the same war-torn country.
Aside from Russian and North Korean Scud-class missiles and the Russian SS-21 Toshka, the Houthi TBM arsenal includes the Iranian-supplied Burkan 1 and Burkan 2 and what some analysts have called the Qahr, which is a surface-to-surface version of the SA-2. According to Western sources, the Burkan 1 is similar to a regular short-range Scud while Burkan 2 carries a smaller, but separating warhead with extended range that can reach beyond the Saudi capital to the Kingdom’s oil production facilities and sensitive desalination plants.
In interviews here at the Dubai Air Show, Raytheon executives declined to specify which regional partners other than Saudi Arabia were responsible for Patriot intercepts of TBM threats in recent years. Nevertheless, they repeatedly referred to “100+ tactical ballistic missiles intercepted in combat since 2015” to underscore the success of a continuously upgraded system originally designed to defend against aircraft.
“We are constantly tailoring the product to the threat,” said Joe DeAntona, “Some of our very important partners in the Middle East have been engaged in conflict with an enemy that has ballistic missiles. And during that time, over 100 successful engagements using the Patriot missile systems to defeat incoming missiles have occurred.”
Of those 100-plus intercepts of Yemen-launched threats, Raytheon executives here credited more than 90 to the firm’s PAC-2 Guided Enhanced Missile-T (GEM-T), whose powerful blast fragmentation warhead neutralizes incoming missiles by exploding itself on or near its target. Saudi Arabia deploys Raytheon’s Pac-2 interceptors as well newer Lockheed Martin-built hit-to-kill PAC-3s, which are designed to destroy targets by sheer force of impact.
When asked why the Raytheon interceptor has scored such tremendous success relative to the more advanced PAC-3, Timothy Cahill, Lockheed Martin vice president for integrated air and missile defense noted that the firm just started delivering the newer missiles to Saudi Arabia last summer.
“I don’t know the precise numbers, and if I did, I wouldn’t say because the governments consider that information to be closely held. What I can say is that PAC-3s are not fully deployed there yet. So it’s more a matter of shooting what you have out in the field,” Cahill said.
The Lockheed executive insisted that the ostensible disparity in intercept successes should not be misconstrued as any failure or “issue” on the part of the Lockheed Martin PAC-3. “I am aware of no problems at all in any shape or form. You use what you have. And considering the number of high-level people we’ve talked to this week — and believe me, we’ve talked to everyone — I would have heard about it,” he said.
Cahill said he did not know when Riyadh would be ready to declare initial operational capability of its Patriot PAC-3 force.
Washington approved some 600 PAC-3 missiles and associated support equipment to Saudi Arabia in July 2015; a potential sale estimated at $5.4 billion. And last October, Washington cleared a potential sale of 360 Lockheed Martin-produced Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) hit-to-kill missiles, 44 launchers and associated fire control stations and radars in a package assessed at $15 billion.
In parallel to that potential U.S. deal, during an early October visit to Moscow by Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud Salman to Moscow, Saudi Arabia announced an agreement with Russia to procure the S400 air and missile defense system. According to U.S. and Russian executives interviewed in Dubai, neither deal has been formally concluded.
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.