More US Troops, Patriots & Radar Head To Saudi; But How Useful Are They?

"We’ve seen this coming," but governments "haven't been preparing to go after not only UAS but cruise missiles."

Patriot missile launcher

The Trump administration is shipping more air defense weapons to Saudi Arabia in response to the devastating Sept. 14 drone and cruise missile attack on a major oil facility there. But it’s not clear if the new hardware — a battery of Patriot missile launchers, 200 more troops, and four 360-degree Sentinel radars — will be the best defense against the next attack if it follows a similar pattern. The problem is that existing US systems are not designed to stop that kind of low-flying, relatively inexpensive threat.

In a statement, Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman said the deployment “will augment the kingdom’s air and missile defense of critical military and civilian infrastructure.” The Pentagon has tried to enlist allies to send more assets to the region, though no firm commitments have been made yet. “Other countries have called out Iranian misadventures in the region,” Hoffman noted, “and we look for them to contribute assets in an international effort to reinforce Saudi Arabia’s defense.”

The US will also put two more Patriot batteries along with a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) on standby for rapid deployment.

The existing Saudi radars are only able to “look” in one direction at a time, and they’re usually pointed south to defend against Houthi missile attacks from Yemen — leaving flight lines from Iran and Iraq mostly exposed. American and Saudi officials have yet to provide enough details to pinpoint where the swarm came from, but the Sentinel radar, while fairly short-ranged, constantly rotates to watch for threats from all directions. It could also be mounted in an elevated position in order to “see” low-flying threats that would normally be hidden behind the horizon.

So the new radars would likely be able to detect incoming drones and cruise missiles. But seeing isn’t shooting, and these new, low-flying threats are not only difficult to see, but tricky to hit. The Patriot in particular is designed to shoot down high-altitude targets like ballistic missiles (e.g. the Iraqi Scud) and jet aircraft, not low-altitude targets like most cruise missiles and drones. What’s more, each Patriot missile costs about $3 million, more than most cruise missiles, let alone drones, which can cost a few hundred dollars. The Army’s other major missile defense system that can be deployed abroad, THAAD, is even more expensive and even more optimized against high-altitude targets.

The fact that the US and Saudi Arabia, which has spent hundreds of billions on American military gear over the decades, have been caught flat-footed by the strike has sent alarm bells ringing among missile defense experts.

“We’ve seen this coming,” said Tom Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, citing Russian drone use in Ukraine, Iranian drones in Syria, and advances in both drone and cruise missile technology worldwide. “This is here. It’s been here,” but governments have done relatively little to meet these new threats, he said, and “haven’t been preparing to go after not only UAS [drones] but cruise missiles.”

Earlier this week, the Pentagon’s policy chief, John Rood, said NATO isn’t prepared to fend off a Saudi-style attack, or even the kind of warfare Russia has been practicing in Ukraine, where drones are used as artillery spotters. Rood said the threats from such weapons and tactics have developed faster than NATO’s ability to rework missile defense and radar systems to detect smaller, faster-moving objects. “As part of our investment priorities we have to shift as an alliance where we’re putting our level of effort if you will, to put a little more emphasis in that area.”

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