Doubt cast on Saudi claims of Houthi missile interception

Kingdom says it has been targeted by 90 ballistic missiles from Yemen’s Houthi rebels over the past three years.

Patriot weapons system at the NATO Missile
NATO Missile Firing Installation, in Chania, Greece. US defence giant Lockheed Martin says the company is delivering its Patriot anti-missile system to Saudi Arabia and that the kingdom is on track to become the second international customer, after the United Arab Emirates, to acquire its THAAD system. [Photo/Sebastian Apel/US Department of Defense, via AP]

Saudi Arabia has claimed to have intercepted all seven missiles fired from Yemen, but missile experts who watched interception videos have questioned those claims.

Jeffrey Lewis, a missile expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, has previously studied other Saudi Patriot missile launches.

Other analysts have also questioned the US Patriot defence system’s suitability for intercepting missiles such as those fired by Houthis in Yemen.

Video analysis

  • One video appears to show a Patriot missile launch on Sunday night going rapidly wrong, with the missile changing course midair, crashing into a neighbourhood in Riyadh and exploding.

  • Another appears to detonate shortly after being launched in the Saudi capital.

  • “It’s more likely that none of the missiles have been intercepted than it is that the Saudis have shot down any,” said Lewis.

Official claim 

  • Sunday night: Saudi Colonel Turki al-Maliki only said in a statement that “all seven ballistic missiles were intercepted and destroyed”.

  • The Saudi military said three of the missiles were aimed at Riyadh, two were aimed at Jazan and one each was aimed at Najran and Khamis Mushait.

  • The Saudi-owned satellite news channel Al Arabiya aired footage that it said showed Patriot missile batteries shooting at the incoming Houthi missiles in Riyadh.
  • One Patriot missile appears to explode seconds after being launched, drawing a shout from a bystander as flaming fragments rain down on the ground.
  • Casualties: Sunday night’s launch saw one Egyptian killed and two others wounded in Riyadh by a missile fragment, marking the first casualties in the Saudi capital since the war began.

  • Previous rockets fired by the Yemeni rebels have caused deaths in other parts of the kingdom.

  • Saudi Arabia says it has been targeted by some 90 ballistic missiles launched by Houthi rebels and their allies since launching a war against them three years ago.

Houthi missiles 

  • Separating warheads: The Houthi Burkan, or Volcano, missiles used in attacks on Riyadh have warheads that separate from the missile fuselage, making them even harder to hit.

  • “The Patriot systems are really overmatched – the missiles that the Houthis are launching at Riyadh have a range of 1,000 kilometres and a separating warhead,” he said.

  • “I wouldn’t expect any of the intercepts to succeed against a missile like that.”

  • Iran: The UN, Western countries and the Saudi-led military coalition fighting in Yemen all say the Burkan mirrors characteristics of an Iranian Qiam ballistic missile. 

  • They say that suggests Iran either shared the technology or smuggled disassembled missiles to the Houthis who then rebuilt them.

  • Iran has long denied supplying arms to the Houthis, though a growing body of evidence contradicts its claim.

Patriot shortcoming

  • PAC missiles: Defence analysts say the Royal Saudi Air Defence Forces largely rely on Patriot PAC-2 missiles, a system developed in the late 1980s. Those missiles rely on so-called blast fragmentation to destroy incoming missiles, spreading over an area like a fired shotgun shell.

  • “The PAC-2 missile that it has had in its inventory since the 1990s was designed to intercept slower, shorter-range, non-separating ballistic missiles, and would probably struggle to destroy the Burkan … after separation,” Jeremy Binnie, an analyst at Jane’s Defence Weekly, wrote in January.

  • Debris found from recent Houthi missile launches hasn’t born any marks suggesting it was hit by such missiles, analysts say.

  • Saudi Arabia also has PAC-3 Patriot missiles, designed to directly hit incoming missiles. Sales of those missiles, which in 2015 were estimated at $5.4bn, have been applauded by President Donald Trump.

  • Trump in November credited the Patriot missile system for hitting another Houthi missile over Riyadh, saying, “Our system knocked it down.” 

  • Interception analysis: But after a Houthi missile aimed at Riyadh’s airport in December, the New York Times published an analysis entitled: “Did American Missile Defense Fail in Saudi Arabia?” in which missile experts questioned the interception claims.

  • According to the analysts, the missile’s warhead flew unimpeded over Saudi defences and was found near its target.

Source: AP