You know the story. Last month Yemen’s Houthis fired a modified Soviet-era Scud missile against Riyadh airport which was intercepted mid air by US-made Patriot missiles Saudi military fired against it.
Trump bragged that “Our system knocked the missile out of the air. That’s how good we are. Nobody makes what we make, and now we’re selling it all over the world.” While the Saudis used the missile launch — fired in retaliation for their countless massacres of civilians from the air — to escalate their blockade of Yemen which had already brought a cholera epidemic and malnutrition to the country to a fully-fledged starvation blockade.
However, at least two aspects of the story were dead wrong. (Three if you count the nonsense of how the missile was supplied by Iran.) For one the missile wasn’t fired by the Houthis as the former rebels have no such heavy weapons. It was actually fired by Saleh loyalists, which is to say the part of the army which had remained loyal to Saleh and was part of Yemen’s anti-Saudi coalition.
Moreover the US Patriot missiles empathically did not shoot down the Scud. Five missiles were fired against it but they all missed. The Scud went on to fly right over the Saudi anti-missile battery and slammed into the ground behind it, missing the runway by just 300 meters — which is actually decent accuracy for a missile which dates back to the 1960s.
The US similarly lied about the performance of US Patriot missiles during the 1990-91 Gulf War against Iraq. Supposedly the Patriots had intercepted the vast majority of Scuds fired by Iraq which was later proven to be completely untrue and the lie was eventually acknowledged. However the story then became that albeit Patriots had failed in 1991, they had since been upgraded so that now they would work as advertised.
Not so. US anti-missile systems still can not defeat even the positively ancient Soviet land-to-land missiles from the 1960s (which in themselves are not a far cry from the V-2 rockets Germans fielded in 1944).
That is not necessarily an indictment of American engineering. Hitting a supersonic missile with another missile is extraordinarily difficult. Doing so reliably might be simply beyond our current technology levels. But it is an indictment of US salesmanship. Perhaps it’s time US stopped bigging up a weapons system which quite obviously doesn’t work.
The New York Times has a good report from the specialists who debunked the Saudi story:
Evidence analyzed by a research team of missile experts appears to show the missile’s warhead flew unimpeded over Saudi defenses and nearly hit its target, Riyadh’s airport. The warhead detonated so close to the domestic terminal that customers jumped out of their seats.
Mr. Lewis and the other analysts, based mostly at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif., were skeptical when they heard Saudi Arabia’s claim to have shot it [Yemeni Scud] down.
Governments have overstated the effectiveness of missile defenses in the past, including against Scuds. During the first Gulf War, the United States claimed a near-perfect record in shooting down Iraqi variants of the Scud. Subsequent analyses found that nearly all the interceptions had failed.
Had it failed in Riyadh as well? The researchers scraped social media for anything posted in that area and time frame, looking for clues.
The pattern of missile debris littering Riyadh suggests missile defenses either hit the harmless rear section of the missile or missed it entirely.
Just as the Saudis fired off missile defenses, debris began to fall in downtown Riyadh. Video posted on social media captured one particularly large section, which landed in a parking lot next to the Ibn Khaldun School.
Other videos show scraps that fell at a handful of other locations clustered in a roughly 500-yard area along a highway.
Saudi officials said the debris, which appears to belong to a downed Burqan-2, showed a successful shootdown. But an analysis of the debris shows that the warhead components – the part of the missile that carries the explosives – were missing.
The missing warhead signaled something important to the analysts: that the missile may have evaded Saudi defenses.
The missile, in order to survive the stresses of a roughly 600 mile flight, was almost certainly designed to separate into two pieces once near its target. The tube, which propels the missile for most of its trajectory, falls away. The warhead, smaller and harder to hit, continues toward the target.
This would explain why the debris in Riyadh only appears to consist of the rear tube. And it suggests that the Saudis may have missed the missile, or only hit the tube after it had separated and begun to fall uselessly toward earth.
Some U.S. officials said there was no evidence the Saudis had hit the missile. Instead, the debris may have broken up under the pressures of flight. What the Saudis presented as evidence of their successful interception may have simply been the missile ejecting its tube as intended.
The Location of the Explosion
A blast 12 miles away at Riyadh’s airport suggests the warhead continued unimpeded toward its target.
At around 9 p.m., about the same time debris crashed in Riyadh, a loud bang shook the domestic terminal at Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport.
“There was an explosion at the airport,” a man said in a video taken moments after the bang. He and others rushed to the windows as emergency vehicles streamed onto the runway.
Another video, taken from the tarmac, shows the emergency vehicles at the end of the runway. Just beyond them is a plume of smoke, confirming the blast and indicating a likely point of impact.
A Houthi spokesman said the missile had targeted the airport.
There’s another reason the analysts think the warhead flew past the missile defenses. They located the Patriot batteries that fired on the missile, shown in this video, and found that the warhead traveled well over the top of them.
Saudi officials have said that some debris from the intercepted missile landed at the airport. But it is difficult to imagine how one errant piece could fly 12 miles beyond the rest of the debris, or why it would detonate on impact.
Smoke and ground damage suggest the warhead struck near the airport’s domestic terminal.
Imagery of the emergency response and a plume of smoke also reveal information about the nature of the impact.
A photo of the plume taken from a different location on the tarmac appears consistent with plumes produced by similar missiles, suggesting the explosion was not an errant piece of debris or an unrelated incident.
By identifying buildings in the photo and video, Mr. Lewis’s team was able to locate the spots from which the images were taken, revealing the precise location of the plume: a few hundred yards off of runway 33R, and about a kilometer from the crowded domestic terminal.
The blast was small, and satellite imagery of the airport taken immediately before and after the blast is not detailed enough to capture the crater from the impact, the analysts said.
But it does show ground damage from the emergency vehicles, supporting the finding that the warhead hit just off the runway.
While the Houthis missed their target, Mr. Lewis said, they got close enough to show that their missiles can reach it and can evade Saudi defenses. “A kilometer is a pretty normal miss rate for a Scud,” he said.
Even the Houthis may not have realized their success, Mr. Lewis said. Unless they had intelligence sources at the airport, they would have little reason to doubt official reports.
“The Houthis got very close to creaming that airport,” he said.
Laura Grego, a missile expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, expressed alarm that Saudi defense batteries had fired five times at the incoming missile.
“You shoot five times at this missile and they all miss? That’s shocking,” she said. “That’s shocking because this system is supposed to work.”