Between January and February 1991, during what would later be known as the First Gulf War, The Iraqi armed forces launched several Scud ballistic missiles toward Israel.
By doing so, Saddam Hussein hoped to cause Israel to retaliate and strike back at Iraq. In his mind, Israel’s involvement had the potential to split the International Coalition taking part in Desert Storm and lead to the withdrawal of several Muslim countries from the said coalition.
Saddam’s gamble almost paid off, but Israel was restrained from striking Iraq by the US: The Americans wanted to be seen as the liberators of Kuwait, not as the invaders of Iraq. To achieve this, they needed the presence of multiple Arab and Muslim partners within the coalition.
To calm Israel down, the US offered to deploy Patriot batteries to act as an umbrella against incoming Scud missiles.
The Patriot was an anti-aircraft battery with (at the time) limited anti-ballistic capabilities. This system was also designed to defend small areas, such as an airbase, not a whole city. The Patriot batteries were nonetheless deployed while Israeli and Raytheon engineers frantically rewrote entire lines of the system’s software to increase the odds of successful interceptions in the ABM role.
At the time and straight after the conflict, President Bush Senior praised the system, saying it had a near-perfect record (97% hit rate).
Several years later, the US army admitted that the successful interception rate was in fact at around 40%. The Israeli authorities, however, say that there is no hard evidence of even one single successful intercept, but that maybe, just maybe, one of the 16 Scud missiles launched at Israel might have been intercepted by a Patriot missile.
The problem is that one has to make the difference between accuracy (an actual hit of a Patriot on a Scud) and success rate (incoming Scud does not hit its intended target).
Scud Modifications By The Iraqis
Iraqi Scuds had been modified for longer range and higher speed, but those modifications weakened the structural integrity of the missile which would often break down upon reentry/terminal phase… It seems that several times, the Patriot system locked on to the tumbling (slower/bigger) fuselage or the Scud while at the same time ignoring or missing the warhead (smaller and traveling faster) altogether.
On a couple of occasions, it also seems that the Patriot missiles may have impacted incoming Scuds or exploded nearby with enough force to deviate the warhead trajectory, but not hard enough to destroy it.
Keep in mind the speeds involved are huge. An error or delay of 1/3 of a second from the Patriot’s detection and targeting systems can results in a miss by as much as 600 meters upon attempted interception!
In any case, the system was pretty new in the ABM role and was hampered by glitches. As a result, the confidence level in the system was at the time pretty low and an average of 4 Patriot missiles was fired at any incoming Scuds over Israel.
The Patriot was constantly upgraded during that conflict and after. To a point where it has now become a fully-fledged Anti-Ballistic Missile system.
History Repeating in Saudi Arabia
But… history may have repeated itself in Saudi Arabia on the 4th of November 2017 when Yemeni Houthis fired a ballistic missile aimed at Riyadh airport. Initial reports indicated the Burqan-2 missile had been intercepted by a Saudi Patriot system.
But new research shows the Patriot’s battery fired 5 missiles and that all of them missed the incoming warhead. One of the Patriot’s missile might have hit part of the fuselage (missile might have separated or broken up mid-flight) but the warhead carried on unimpeded and actually flew over the Patriot battery before impacting 200 meters short of the runway.
The Burqan-2 belongs to the Scud family of ballistic missiles. It landed 200 meters from the runway and about 1km from the main terminal, which is typical Scud accuracy (between 50 meters and 3000 meters depending on variants).
Patriot batteries in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have seen action on a regular basis against Yemeni ballistic missiles since 2015, and while some of those missiles have been intercepted, several seem to have leaked through and hit their targets.
This article is not a praise for the Scud’s performance or criticism against the Patriot system.
It is more of a reality check: The media is awash with stories about the deployment of Thaad batteries in South Korea, work in progress toward a ballistic shield in Eastern Europe, GMD in the US and upgraded A-135 in Russia.
It is all well and good, but recent events seem to show just how difficult it is to successfully intercept a ballistic missile, even a model as obsolete as the Scud that was first developed in the early 1950s!
Scud versus Patriot, then. The controversy carries on, 26 years on.
If you want to read in detail about the Iran-Iraq war, written by our esteemed author, you can read it here.