Divided attention: Gulf air defenders struggle to cover multiple directions

by Jeremy Binnie

Saudi Minister of Defence Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had an explanation for the failure of his kingdom’s air defences to mitigate the 14 September cruise missile and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attacks on two of its oil facilities. “Saudi Arabia is almost the size of a continent; it is bigger than all of Western Europe,” he said in an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes later that month. “We have 360° of threats. It’s challenging to cover all this fully.”

Iran’s cultivation of allies in Arab countries has given it more potential locations from which to launch attacks on Saudi Arabia. However, its development of low-flying, air-breathing weapons has also provided a way to circumvent air defences. The limitations of the Patriot system that Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars fielding have also been highlighted.

Advanced capability

The Patriot system was originally developed towards the end of the Cold War to replace both the Nike Hercules and HAWK systems in the long- and medium-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) roles respectively. It was primarily an anti-aircraft weapon until the Patriot Advanced Capability-2 (PAC-2) upgrade improved its ability to engage tactical ballistic missiles.

While the engagement envelopes of the various Patriot configurations remain classified, it is clear that the area the system can defend against ballistic missiles is far smaller than its range against aircraft. At the same time the AN/MPQ-53 radar – later upgraded to the AN/MPQ-65 – lacks a 360° capability as it is set up to stare in the presumed direction of the threat rather than rotate. This characteristic was not a significant limitation in the context of the Cold War.

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The attack on Saudi Arabia’s key Abqaiq oil field starkly highlighted the challenges that have been ...

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