US-supplied Patriot missile batteries with their powerful radars have come under fire for completely missing out on Yemeni army’s drone attacks on Saudi oil installations.
Saudi’s failure to defend its homeland was observed even in 2017 when Yemeni Houtis struck King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh.
During his visit to Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the drone strike on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly admitted that the Patriot appeared to have been less effective than what they should have been. “We want to make sure that infrastructure and resources are put in place such that attacks like this would be less successful than this one appears to have been,” he said.
Royal Saudi Air Defense’s (RSADF’s) “Peace Shield” consists of Raytheon-made Patriot batteries (costing about $1 billion apiece) to shoot down hostile aircraft or shorter-range ballistic missiles. They provide “point defense,” which is not suitable for protecting wide swaths of land. It is unclear why they were not stationed close to the Saudi oil facilities.
US’ array of powerful spy satellites and aircraft deployed to gather and share crucial data with Saudi military also proved to be futile. “We don’t have an unblinking eye over the entire Middle East at all times,” said Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Michael Duitsman, Research Associate at James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, California, predicts that the Patriots stationed at Saudi could have been turned off, or was possibly affected by ground clutter, unlike the radars of S-300s that are mounted on a mobile, 23 metre tall mast. “The attacking drones flew in at low altitude (perhaps no more than 200 meters) from the north or northwest. The Patriot radar's line of sight was obscured by the oil facility, its residential and support buildings, and a village further to the west,” he stated in his Twitter account.
Without the Patriot radar, Abqaiq's defenders were entirely reliant on the Shahine and Skyguard radars, which have a 20 km range against full-sized aircraft. “If we assume that Iran's delta-wing drone is detected at 10 km and flies at an especially lackadaisical 75 m/s (167 mph), the defenders will have slightly more than two minutes between detection and impact, which is insufficient,” Duitsman explained.
The US rejects Yemen’s claim that it orchestrated the attack of this scale on its own and blames Iran for the strike. Interestingly, Iranian-made Khorad-3 missile system reportedly downed an American stealth drone this June.