Did U.S.-Made Saudi Missile Defenses Fail During Yemen Rocket Attack?

Saudi Arabia has claimed to have intercepted seven ballistic missiles fired by Houthi forces from Yemen, using the U.S.-made MIM-104 Patriot missile defense system.

However, footage has emerged suggesting that at least two of the Patriot missiles failed. Videos posted to social media show one exploding in midair and another performing an abrupt U-turn before slamming into the ground.

The interceptions resulted in one death after debris fell on residential areas in Riyadh, Saudi military officials said. This is the first fatality in the capital related to a Houthi missile attack, according to Reuters.

Three of the missiles were aimed at the Saudi capital Riyadh, one at Khamis Mushait, one at Najran and two at Jizan. A military statement said that the interception of the missiles led to fragments “raining on a few residential neighborhoods,” which led to the death of an Egyptian resident and material damage to civilian property. Two other civilians were injured.

Despite Saudi claims of success, it is possible that at least two missiles “failed catastrophically,” according to Jeffrey Lewis, Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. Lewis noted that one missile seemed to fail in midair and that a second quickly turned around and crashed into the ground.

Lewis went as far as suggesting the casualties may have been “inflicted by the Saudi interceptors rather than the Houthi missile,” though he noted that more information about “where debris fell, impact points, and where people were killed/injured” would be required before conclusions could be drawn.

Saudi Arabia uses the American MIM-104 Patriot system for its missile defense. If last night’s intercept was a failure, it would be a significant question mark over the effectiveness of the system, and it would not be the first.

In November 2017, Saudi Arabia claimed to have intercepted a Houthi ballistic missile over Riyadh. In the days after, President Donald Trump boasted about the success of the weapon, telling reporters, “Our system knocked the missile out of the air.”

However, analysis produced by Lewis and his colleagues at the Middlebury Institute suggested that the missile’s warhead got through Saudi defenses and almost hit its target; Riyadh airport. According to the New York Times, the warhead exploded so close to one of the airport’s terminals that customers jumped out of their seats.

Houthi ballistic missile 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 launch by Houthi forces of a ballistic missile aimed at Riyadh's King Khaled Airport. Houthi Military Media Unit via REUTERS TV

Saudi officials cited debris of the missile body found in downtown Riyadh to be evidence of a successful interception. However, remnants of the explosive warhead were missing. A missile’s body and warhead generally separate close to the target, the body falling away and the warhead continuing to its destination.

The lack of warhead debris suggests it made it to the airport some 12 miles away, where an explosion and plume of smoke suggested an impact. Saudi officials claimed the explosion was caused by debris from the destroyed missile landing, but such a large impact—felt by travelers in the terminal—and the 12 miles between the main missile body debris and the explosion make this unlikely.

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