U.S. Missile Defense Couldn't Stop North Korea and May Not Even Protect Saudi Arabia From Rebels in Yemen

The capabilities of the U.S.'s top-of-the-line missile defense systems have been called into question as North Korea has boosted the range and power of its growing arsenal, and a recent report showed not even the U.S.'s allies may be able to rely on its anti-missile technology.

Amid last month's series of lightning developments in Saudi Arabia, which included the alleged forced resignation and detainment of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri as well as a mass anti-corruption purge headed by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, a missile headed toward the kingdom's capital of Riyadh. A group of Yemeni Zaidi Shiite Muslim rebels known as Ansar Allah, or the Houthis, claimed responsibility for the attack, which Saudi Arabia said had been thwarted by a U.S.-built MIM-104F Patriot missile defense system, a staple of U.S. defenses deployed around the world.

Related: North Korean missiles could hit the U.S. and trick missile defense systems, experts warn

In a recent report, however, analyst Jeffrey Lewis and his team at the Middlebury Institute for International Affairs uncovered a different account, one that appeared to challenge statements by Saudi officials and President Donald Trump.

"Governments lie about the effectiveness of these systems. Or they’re misinformed," Lewis told The New York Times. “And that should worry the hell out of us."

RTS1ILCO A still image taken from a video distributed by Yemen's pro-Houthi Al Masirah television station on November 5, 2017, shows what it says was the Houthis' "launch of the Burkan H2 (Volcano H2) long-range ballistic missile toward King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh." Houthi Military Media Unit via REUTERS TV

By analyzing scores of photos and videos on social media and other available evidence from the incident, Lewis and his team determined that the five shots fired by Saudi Arabia's Patriot batteries likely missed their target altogether and the Houthis' incoming Burkan H-2 (Volcano H-2) short-range ballistic missile flew well over the kingdom's defenses but missed its target, believed to be Riyadh's international airport. The missile instead appeared to have struck about half a mile away, a distance Lewis called "a pretty normal miss rate for a Scud," in reference to the Soviet-era missile on which the Houthis' latest and most powerful weapon was based.

"The Houthis got very close to creaming that airport," Lewis told the Times.

Shortly after the November 4 attack, a spokesperson for the Saudi-led coalition battling the Houthis in neighboring Yemen told BBC News that the missile had been "intercepted." Saudi Arabia has accused the rebel group, which took full control of Sanaa in early 2015, of being an Iran-backed proxy, and Mohammad bin Salman said the attack was "a direct military aggression by the Iranian regime and may be considered an act of war against the kingdom." Trump, another vocal critic of Iran, took the opportunity to praise the effectiveness of his military's technology.

"We make the best military equipment in the world," Trump told reporters November 5 on Air Force One, according to CNN. "...You saw the missile that went out? And 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."

If Saudi Arabia's defenses hit the missile at all, however, Lewis' team found that it must have been hit only on its rear tube—after that useless part had already separated from the deadly explosive warhead, which almost certainly hit the ground. While Houthi rebels may not present a major threat to U.S. forces, the same Patriot system that appeared to have failed against the insurgents is also trusted as a major line of defense against a much more powerful foe—North Korea.

RTX3DR6P A Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) soldier takes part in a drill to mobilize their Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missile unit in response to a recent missile launch by North Korea, at U.S. Air Force Yokota Air Base in Fussa on the outskirts of Tokyo, Japan August 29, 2017. As North Korea grows more militarily advanced, concerns have been raised over the effectiveness of the U.S.-built anti-missile system, the same one which was deployed in Saudi Arabia. Issei Kato/Reuters

Trump has escalated the U.S.'s decades-long struggle to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) at a time when its youngest ruler, Kim Jong Un, has made the country more powerful than ever. In addition to increasing sanctions and diplomatic pressure against his rival, Trump has boosted U.S. military activity in a region where an estimated 62,500 U.S. personnel are stationed.

North Korea's state media as recently as Tuesday compared the forces involved in joint U.S.-South Korea air drills to "a group of tiger moths flying into fire only to perish in it." As evidenced by North Korea's most recent ICBM test last week, U.S. forces stationed abroad aren't the only ones in trouble if North Korea decides to unleash the full extent of its missile wrath. 

Echoing previous estimates disclosed by experts, Michael Elleman, a senior fellow for missile defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told Newsweek Monday that there was about "a 50 percent chance" the U.S. could intercept a North Korean ICBM heading toward the country. Elleman said he is "not entirely confident in the system."

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