The MM-104 Patriot missile has been a critical component in the United States’ arsenal for decades. It was prominently deployed during the Gulf War and has been in use ever since, with a current estimated retirement date of 2040. But recent video from Saudi Arabia shows the Patriot missile system misfiring at a high rate.
While initial reports claimed that the Patriot missiles all struck their intended targets (seven Burkan 2-H SRBM missiles fired by Houthi rebels), later news showed that some of the Patriots appear to have veered off course or exploded prematurely. One man died after being struck by metal debris (either from a Patriot or one of the Burkan 2-H SRBM’s) and one missile is said to have struck a residential neighborhood in Riyadh. It’s not clear how many intercepts are being claimed; online reports range from three successful intercepts to seven. The videos below capture two different missile failures, with one clearly impacting the city it was intended to protect.
Suudi başkenti Riyadh da büyük patlama meydana geldi. pic.twitter.com/qSwwowoVOU
— Son Kale Türkiye (@SonKaleTurkiye2) March 25, 2018
This missile has been identified as being fired from a Saudi launcher (this is a Patriot, not a Burkan-2H). The second video shows a missile exploding immediately after launch.
This video shows the second failed MIM-104C Surface to Air missile was exploded mid-air few seconds after launch over the #SaudiArabia Air Defense Force Patriot PAC-2 SAM battery at Riyadh. #Houthi's Burkan 2-H SRBM was successfully shot-down by one of surviving five MIM-104Cs. pic.twitter.com/o5cbEtKEVs
— Babak Taghvaee (@BabakTaghvaee) March 25, 2018
During the Gulf War, when the Patriot was tasked with intercepting Iraq’s modified Scud missiles, US practice was to fire four Patriot missiles for every Scud to improve the odds of a successful intercept. The MM-104 has been upgraded several times since then — the Saudis are using the Advanced Capability-2 variant of the missile, according to Motherboard, which means they’ve got the same platform we used during the opening days of the Iraq War back in 2003. The Burkan-2H missile is a new design thought to be based on the Iranian Qiam 1/Scud-C, Iranian Shahab-2/Scud-C, or Scud-D. No matter which way you slice it, the Burkan-2H is thought to be a descendent of Soviet missile technology, but with modifications that make it harder to intercept.
All Missile Defense Systems Are Not Created Equal
One of the real problems of talking about missile defense systems is the way the various types of missile defense systems are often muddled together. Intercepting a Palestinian Qassam rocket (as Israel’s Iron Dome system is designed to do) with a range of 5-16km is different from intercepting a Burkan-2H, with a range of 530 miles and a “baby-bottle” warhead design intended to increase the warhead’s terminal velocity. And intercepting a Burkan-2H with a Patriot missile is a vastly different problem than the question of whether we can intercept an ICBM fired by a hostile nation-state and carrying a nuclear warhead. (Our ability to intercept and destroy a nuclear-tipped ICBM is very much in doubt).
Each of these cases presents a different set of problems, ranging from the combined speeds of the missiles to the shape of the warheads, time to intercept, the potential presence of countermeasures built into the missile itself, and the ramifications of failing to hit the target. These differences are why it’s possible to build an intercept system that hits slower targets with relatively small payloads, while our ability to stop ICBMs with a missile defense system remains in doubt. These videos are also a reminder that even our ability to intercept smaller missiles isn’t as reliable as we might wish it was.