The American public and the rest of the world have been sold the myth that the Patriot missile system is effective, and top of it's tier. Here's where this was proven wrong.
"The US army has announced its intent to procure a limited number of Iron Dome weapon systems,” said Colonel Patrick Seiber, spokesman for Army Futures Command, on February 6, 2019.
The choice to acquire the Israeli missile defense system marks a significant shift from US reliance and the global emphasis on the effectiveness of the Patriot Missile System of the same class. Research and development of Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system were partly funded by a $429 million US investment.
Missile defense remains a contentious issue in the 21st Century. While global powers develop state-of-the-art missile systems to counter stealth aircraft on battlefields shaped by raging electronic and cyber warfare, their track records for shooting down missiles leaves much to be desired.
For the United States, this is especially problematic given that the Patriot missile system is at the forefront of NATO defense strategy. More critically, the US announced punitive sanctions on Turkey for opting to procure the S-400 missile defense system over the Patriot missile system after being repeatedly denied procurement rights.
The US changed its stance on not selling the Patriot missile system to Turkey, after it had already inked a $2.5 billion agreement with Russia for two S-400 batteries in April 2017.
Israel's Iron Dome has allegedly shot down more than 1,200 projectiles since going operational in 2011, catching the attention of some countries including Saudi Arabia, and more recently the United States.
The system is unique in that not only does it feature a reliable rate of interception, but it can tell if the incoming projectile is going to miss a target, saving a $100,000 interceptor from being fired altogether.
But given that the United States is already the owner of cutting-edge missile defense systems for its forces - also widely used by most of its NATO allies - the decision to acquire the Iron Dome System to “fill a short-term need” is questionable.
Why the Patriot Missile doesn’t work
The US 2019 Missile Defense Review cited the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missile defense system’s "proven combat record”.
US officials inflated its success during Operation Desert Storm significantly, however, surrounding the missile system with a mythical reputation for effectiveness.
During the 1991 Gulf War, the American public was informed that the Patriot missile had a near-perfect record, intercepting a total of 45 out of 47 Scud missiles. This estimate was later revised down by the US army to about 50 percent. Even then, it noted "higher" confidence in only about 25 percent of the cases.
A Congressional Research Service employee commented that if the US army had consistently and accurately applied its assessment method, the number would be far lower. Reportedly, this number was one Scud missile shot down.
Following a House Committee on Government Operations investigation, not enough evidence was found to conclude that there had been any interceptions at all.
There is little evidence to prove that the Patriot hit more than a few Scud missiles launched by Iraq during the Gulf War," the investigations concluded.
"There are some doubts about even these engagements," it added.
The report, which called for declassifying more information on the Patriot missile and an independent evaluation of the missile defense program, was crushed under a lobbying campaign by the US army and Raytheon, leaving only a summary publicly available.
More recently, however, Saudi Arabia put its Patriot defenses to the test and found them severely lacking, with outright failures.
In repeated missile strikes from Houthi rebels using unsophisticated ballistic missiles, the Patriot missile failed, at times spectacularly.
Despite Saudi Arabia claiming a high success rate for the missile system, it discussed obtaining advanced S-400 missile defenses from Russia following the Patriot failures.
Saudi Arabia isn’t alone in pursuing better options for the sake of national security. NATO allies such as Turkey also entered into discussions to bolster their missile defenses by acquiring the Russian missile system, causing significant friction with the US, triggering a trade war and leading to threats that F-35 stealth fighter deliveries to Turkey would be cut off altogether.
During late March 2018, Yemeni Houthi rebels launched seven ballistic missiles towards Saudi Arabia, which were intercepted, according to the Saudi Press Agency.
The National, an English-language news outlet from the United Arab Emirates, reported that “one person died and two others were injured” by shrapnel over Riyadh.
But Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said on Twitter that in video footage of the missiles, it appeared that one defense system had ‘failed catastrophically’, while another ‘pulled a U-turn’ and exploded in Riyadh.”
This was not reported by Saudi news agencies, which continued to claim that all incoming missiles were shot down.
Lewis believes that it was "entirely possible" that it was the defense system failure, instead of the incoming missiles themselves, that caused casualties or injuries.
This raises critical questions not just about Saudi Arabia’s use of the missiles, but of the United States, which sold Saudi Arabia — and its elected public — a false representation of the missile defense system.
A closer look
More recently, experts at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies closely studied two different missile attacks on Saudi Arabia from both November and December 2017.
In both cases, they found it highly unlikely that the missiles were intercepted, despite official statements.
In their study, they examined where resulting debris, including the missile airframe and warhead, fell and where the interceptors were located.
In the two cases, a clear pattern was visible. The Patriot missile itself falls in Riyadh, while the incoming missile separates, passes defenses and lands near its target.
One such missile warhead landed within a few hundred meters of a terminal at Riyadh's King Khalid International Airport. The second warhead, fired weeks later, nearly destroyed a car dealership.
In both cases, the report concluded that in spite of official Saudi claims, neither missile was shot down and that Saudi Arabia may not have even tried to shoot down the first missile in November.
With little evidence that Saudi Arabia shot down any missiles fired by the Houthi rebels during the Yemen conflict, and the United States’ own failed experience with Patriot missiles during the first Gulf war, a more serious question is posed: who is to say that the Patriot system even works?
While the US army's statement announcing the acquisition of the Israeli Iron Dome missile defense system clarified that it would be a short-term solution while the US reviews its options, by purchasing an Israeli system and overlooking a US system with a questionable past, the US may be admitting to the failings of its own missile defense.
Editor's Note: This article was updated on December 15 2020 to reflect the announcement of US sanctions on Turkey.
The Patriot Missile Failure
Download PDF • 73KB