Time to update missile defense systems
Since 2015, countless missiles have been fired toward targets in Saudi Arabia by the Houthi militia. With key infrastructure installations, holy sites and centers of population in their sights, the missiles pose a direct threat to states on the Arabian Peninsula. Just this week, missiles fired from Yemen were intercepted by Patriot batteries over Riyadh and other Saudi cities.
In the Houthi context, the “Burkan” or “Volcano” missile used in attacks on Riyadh also have warheads that separate from the missile fuselage, a sophistication of weaponry that requires an updated system of defense. The PAC-2 missiles that the Gulf states have are designed to intercept shorter-range, non-separating ballistic missiles and will increasingly find interception a challenge.
The overstating of the Patriot system’s capability has been commonplace since the 1991 Gulf War. On a visit to the Raytheon HQ in Massachusetts during the war, President George H.W. Bush famously claimed it had a 97 percent success rate, which has been altered thereafter to 80, 40 and, in some cases, 9 percent. The PAC-2 missiles rely on blast fragmentation, not dissimilar to a shotgun, whereby the debris intercepts an incoming projectile. The PAC-3, on the other hand, is designed to directly intercept missiles. In both cases, faced with rockets that increasingly resemble the Tehran-manufactured Qiam ballistic missile, an overhaul of existing defense systems is required.
At their very core, such missile attacks are intended to be psychological weapons. It is hoped they “sow fear and uncertainty, with a knock-on effect on the economy, public confidence, everyday life,” according to a senior British defense consultant.
New threats highlight that failure-prone Patriot should not be used in isolation, but rather as part of an in-depth defensive structure whose components operate sympathetically with each other.
Zaid M. Belbagi
Within this context, the effectiveness of missile defense systems is a key facet of successful public relations. The “Iron Dome” that Patriot has been marketed as providing is an important psychological asset, but battle experience has shown that it is not infallible. The PAC-2 system uses a proximity-fused warhead to explode enemy missiles and, when an interception is successful, it can cause a great deal of debris that can lead to casualties and other collateral damage. Given the importance of public opinion in sensitive conflict situations, intercepting warheads away from centers of population, or even recalibrating them to become more accurate, will be a priority of air defense personnel going forward.
The Houthi missile attacks are an example of where sensitive regional politics and psychology collide. It is therefore important that missile defenses are upgraded and that current practitioners receive the training to deal with the ever-growing threats. Expensive missile defense systems do boost confidence, but it is imperative they work in an integrated fashion, so as to provide comprehensive cover. Patriot is the most tested defense system, but, according to the senior British expert, “given its age, it probably needs upgrading. It needs expert operators and maintainers and its hardware and software need to be rigorously protected from sabotage, decay and hacking.”
There is a significant degree of misunderstanding about modern air defense systems among both practitioners and the public. They do not act as an impenetrable umbrella against ballistic threats and are rather designed to be tactical systems to protect key military installations, such as command centers and essential radar, from attack.
Patriot has continually shown itself to be prone to failures in missile telemetry, with missiles not self-destructing or veering off course. In the public relations battle that so often complicates modern warfare, such margins of error can be challenging for operators, meaning the case for a system review and upgrade is more compelling.
Aside from the hype of its manufacturers, who have sold 10,000 missiles to date, Patriot cannot be used in isolation, but should rather be part of an in-depth defensive system, all of whose components need to operate sympathetically with each other.
Retired US Col. David DesRoches, associate professor of the Near East South Asia Center at the National Defense University, summarized the issue perfectly by saying: “The Patriot is probably the most effective missile defense system in the world; however, no anti-missile system is 100 percent effective, particularly against new threats.”
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political c ommentator an dan adviser to private clients between London andthe Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
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