The New York Times has suggested that the Patriot missile defense batteries in Saudi Arabia did not work, but that the Yemeni-based Houthi rebel last week launched ballistic missiles simply luckily missed when they targeted the airport in Riyadh.
The Times also thinks the U.S. hasn’t made any missile defense progress over the past 25 years because, it notes, an earlier version of the same Patriot missile defense systems also did not work, but then it was in the Gulf War 1991.
At that time, however, the Patriot missile defense was a rudimentary upgraded air defense system that in a crisis was brought to the Middle East to defend our allies, especially Israel.
But did the Times get the story straight about the current, upgraded Patriot?
Well, it appears, according to top Middle East missile expert Uzi Rubin, the former head of the Israel Office of Missile Defense, that the Times made some seriously wrong assumptions.
Rubin wrote to me: “The NY Times article may be based on a wrong assumption, that the ‘Burkan 2’ [launched by the Houthi rebels at the KSA airport] works like the old Scuds as a non- separating missile.”
He further noted: “If I understand it correctly, the Yemeni missile is a version of the Iranian Quiam, an Iranian designed souped up version of the Scud C which is a separating missile with a separating reentry vehicle, i.e. the front end (the ‘warhead’) detaches itself after the end of the boost and flies on its own, while the spent stage trails behind it and hits the ground kilometers behind the that of the war-head.
If this is true, the target for the Patriots was not the ‘missile’ — which by now was not a ‘missile’ any more but two objects, a spent stage and a warhead — but just the warhead.”
Rubin then explains: “The debris in downtown Riyadh shown in the New York Times piece could than come from the breakup of the spent stage in midair because it is not designed to withstand the reentry loads, or from the impact on the ground, or both. Notice that the debris is in large pieces and not too broken up. This indicates a relatively gentle impact speed, which in turn indicates a free falling spent stage, losing energy by tumbling while falling.”
“This is why no warhead pieces were found in the debris field inside Riyadh city. This also explains why there are no fragment holes from the Patriot 2 warhead in the debris – it was simply not targeted. If this assumption how the ‘Burkan 2’ works is correct, the Patriot system proved successful in discriminating between the non-targets — the spend stage and its pieces — and the real target, the warhead.”
(This is very good news!)
As for the warhead itself, Rubin further explains: “We have no way to know from the evidence whether it was intercepted or not. The explosion that rocked the airport terminal could come from the destruction of the warhead in midair – people reported their homes were rocked in 2014 from Iron Dome interceptions of Hamas launched rockets many kilometers above the ground.”
He continued: “If the warhead did impact on the ground near the airport, one wonders how it could have made such a huge column of smoke while at the same time leaving no discernable scorch marks or craters in the satellite photos. The smoke may have been caused by some local fire that had nothing to do with the missile.”
Rubin emphasizes however, “This is not to say that the Patriot necessarily managed or didn’t manage to hit the warhead. It might have missed — a 100 percent intercept rate doesn’t exist.”
Although as Rubin noted in remarks to a missile defense seminar I hosted in early August here in Washington, D.C., the Saudi and UAE governments have been able to intercept some 85 percent of the Houthi launched rockets using the very same Patriot missile defense systems the Times doubts works at all. In any case, the Times analysis might well be completely off the mark. Especially considering their not being evidence of damage where the supposed warhead landed.
The New York Times likewise doubted Iron Dome in 2014 worked against Hamas launched rockets into Israel. At that time, coincidentally, Uzi Rubin spoke here in Washington during the attacks and he rhetorically asked if Israeli missile defenses didn’t work, how could one account in 2014 for the almost zero casualties from literally thousands of Hamas launched rockets at Israel? Especially when compared to the Hezbollah rocket attacks against northern Israel some years earlier which had caused numerous Israeli casualties with far fewer rockets.
Rubin particularly remembered one critic from MIT, Ted Postol, apparently a poorly informed physicist, who explained the lower casualty rate by claiming the Israelis just ran much faster to their shelters in 2014 compared to during earlier missile attacks.
Uzi Rubin notes likely Israelis were certainly not getting any faster a foot, the shelters were in the same place and had not been moved, and if anything, Israelis were getting slightly older and slower.
He concluded, of course, the difference was that the Iron Dome worked in 2014 and was not available earlier during the 2006 war against Hezbollah. In fact, even though Hamas that summer of 2014 launched more rockets on Israel than Hitler did on England in World War II, casualties were still low. It was later determined Iron Dome’s defense successfully shot down 90 percent of the Hamas rockets they engaged.
As a result, thousands of lives were probably saved. And a wider war prevented.
The Times’s penchant for belittling American and Israeli missile defenses reminded Rubin of the Iranian missile parades where banners, in English, draped over the missiles, would proclaim “The U.S. Can Do Nothing” to defend against Iranian missiles.
But didn’t the Times assure us that the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran was going to modify Iran’s behavior?
So why, when the missile armed, Iranian backed Houthi rebels in Yemen are apparently getting the upper hand, shouldn’t the Times want the U.S. to deploy more missile defenses?
Conversely, why would the Times agree with Iran’s Foreign Minister that its missile programs and associated threats should not be on the table for discussion or be the basis for more sanctions under the consideration of the JCPOA nuclear deal when missile threats from Iran are expanding?
And wouldn’t the Times think the administration’s call for immediate emergency spending for $4.2 billion more for missile defenses to defend Iranian missile threats in the Middle East and North Korean missile threats in the Pacific is a good step in the right direction?
The Times appears not to think so, maybe because they agree with the Iranian banner that proclaims: “The U.S. Can Do Nothing.”
Peter Huessy is the director for strategic deterrent studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.