The bombing of a Saudi oil facility by an Iranian-backed group using drones and cruise missiles has led to questions about Saudi’s air defense system. It has cost billions of dollars and it has garnered questions about the Patriot missile defense system. For the most part, analysis was good but mentioned something in passing that was the key to the entire scrutiny which shows that this is not a weapon system failure but a failure of leadership and preparation on the part of the Saudis.
The analysis contained a particular quote which delineated, “Ideally, the Saudis need layered defenses, including short-range point defense systems…to allow rapid engagements of small threats with cheaper systems than the massively expensive Patriot.”
That is entirely correct, but the statement should have been unpacked. The Patriot missile system is not inferior to the Russian made S-300, though it does have some limitations compared to other systems. The Saudis have failed to adapt and adjust to the modern emerging battlefield.
The U.S. has taken steps to produce new and interlocking defenses. For example, they have started to field the F-35 with advanced sensors that can see beyond the horizon and transmit that data to other platforms. The sensors on the Aegis ships such as the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers are 50 times more sensitive, which allows them to better detect and guide missile defense systems for small and fast objects like drones. The U.S. is also experimenting with upgraded hypervelocity rail guns for close-in defense. These fire so quickly that they eliminate the need for explosive ordnances and rely upon high-speed impact to destroy incoming missiles.
But that isn’t all—the U.S. is experimenting with novel laser technologies. While laser weapons still inspire giggles and Dr. Evil memes, advances in miniaturization and cooling have allowed U.S. military forces to start testing lasers on F-15s, destroyers, and land vehicles (Humvees) in the next year or two—they can field it on most ships, planes, and vehicles shortly after that. These lasers have the potential to fortify systems like supply planes that are traditionally the Achilles heel of America’s defense apparatus. But unlike traditional missile defense systems, the lasers are heat generated, which means they have unlimited ammunition at no cost. This means that Americans don’t have to choose like the Saudis, to use a thousand-dollar missile to shoot down a 50-dollar drone.
In addition to the Saudis failing to develop an interlocking defense system to prevent this kind of attack they were operating in peace time with likely undertrained soldiers. Despite being a surprise attack the Saudis should have been prepared for it. They have been actively fighting proxy wars in Yemen against Iran and oil is their only cash crop. Like supply planes mentioned above, their oil infrastructure is susceptible to attacks. Yet they had relatively untrained soldiers manning the missile defense systems. In 2017, for example, an article described how the Saudis have spent billions on weapons systems but have a rather ineffective force. And it seems that a missile system, a piece of metal with chips, buttons, and wires, is being blamed for the failure of policy makers to adequately update their defensive systems to deal with drones and to train their soldiers to be aware and dedicated in even peace time conditions.
It is slightly concerning that the U.S.-based Patriot missile defense system seemed to fail. But like an NBA center with lousy teammates who gives up a single basket, a single system cannot overcome a lack of multi-layered defenses, policy makers that seem unconcerned with developing them, and lackluster soldiers in peace time that aren’t properly trained to stop unconventional threats.