Saudi Arabia Is Running Out Of Patriot Missiles In Its Conflict With The Houthis

Saudi Arabia is requesting “hundreds more” missile rounds for its U.S.-supplied Patriot air-defense systems as it continues to wage a war against drones (as well as rudimentary cruise missiles) and ballistic missile attacks launched by the Iranian-backed Houthi forces based in neighboring Yemen. The diminishing Saudi missile stocks reflect the extent of the challenge facing The Kingdom, which recently sought to buy additional AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles, or AMRAAMs, to arm its fighter jets against some of the same threats.

Writing today in the Wall Street Journal, Gordon Lubold reported that the United States is “poised to formally approve” a Saudi request for additional Patriot missile rounds. This comes amid fears within The Kingdom that the scale of drone and missile attacks “could result in significant loss of life or damage to critical oil infrastructure.”

Saudi Patriot launchers during Exercise Ramah al-Nasr 1 that took place in the country earlier this year., Saudi Press Agency

Unnamed U.S. officials confirmed to the same publication that the U.S. State Department was now considering the sale, although the Saudis were also looking to Gulf and European allies to resupply its Patriot missile stocks. In these cases, however, U.S. approval would still be required to transfer hardware to the Saudis.

“The United States is fully committed to supporting Saudi Arabia’s territorial defense, including against missiles and drones launched by Iranian-backed Houthi militants in Yemen,” a senior official from the Biden administration told the Wall Street Journal. “We are working closely with the Saudis and other partner countries to ensure there is no gap in coverage.”

Unnamed U.S. and Saudi officials pointed out that the scale of the Houthi drone and missile onslaught is such that almost a dozen ballistic missile and drone strikes are now recorded on Saudi territory each week, a tempo that’s remained more or less constant for several months now and which is markedly greater than in 2020.

According to one unnamed Saudi government official speaking to the WSJ, there were 29 drone strikes on Saudi Arabia last month and 25 times in October. At the same time, there were 11 ballistic-missile attacks last month and 10 in October.

A series of videos showing ballistic missiles being intercepted over Riyadh in 2018:

Cross-border attacks of all types launched by the Houthis into Saudi Arabia this year amount to around 375 so far, according to Timothy Lenderking, the U.S. Special Envoy for Yemen.

With some of the best-equipped armed forces in the region, Saudi Arabia has been employing Patriot systems to intercept ballistic missiles and, in some cases, drones. Drones have also been downed repeatedly by air-to-air missiles launched from F-15s and other fighter jets. Each of those scenarios pits sophisticated defensive weapons costing up to $1 million apiece against targets which, at the lowest end, may cost only a few thousand dollars to produce.

So, while the Saudi defenses may achieve a success rate of almost 90 percent against these targets, according to U.S. officials, the result is not only costly in financial terms but also takes a heavy toll on missile stocks.

At the same time, the wider problem of defending Saudi airspace has been compounded by the departure of U.S. military assets from the country as part of a wider drawdown of American forces in the Middle East.

Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, then the top U.S. commander for the Middle East, meets with troops at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, in Jan. 2019, after America deployed fighter jets, Patriot missile batteries, troops, and other systems., AP/Lolita Baldor

However, under President Joe Biden, the issue of supplying arms to Saudi Arabia has also become more complicated, with the administration concerned by The Kingdom’s conduct in the war in Yemen as well as human rights abuses conducted inside the country and externally.

Last month the U.S. State Department approved the sale of the 280 AMRAAMs to Saudi Arabia, comprising a mixture of AIM-120C-7 and C-8 models, to be sold via the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) process, pending approval by the U.S. Congress.

At the time, the U.S. State Department stated on Twitter: “We’ve seen an increase in cross-border attacks against Saudi Arabia over the past year. Saudi AIM-120C missiles, deployed from Saudi aircraft, have been instrumental in intercepting these attacks that also [place] U.S. forces at risk and over 70,000 U.S. citizens in The Kingdom at risk.”

In response, eight senators have now come together up to propose a joint resolution that would block the proposed AMRAAM sale. The AIM-120s are not capable of attacking land targets and can only be considered defensive weaponry in regards to the ongoing conflict in Yemen. Regardless, resistance to providing AMRAAMs is likely to apply also to the requested Patriot missiles, as well.

However, there is U.S. self-interest involved, too, chiefly in protecting critical oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia against the relentless Houthi attacks. Among the most notorious examples are the dramatic strikes on Saudi oil infrastructure in the northeastern portion of the country in September 2019, which the Houthis claimed responsibility for, although the U.S. government subsequently blamed Iran directly for that particularly complex operation.

A Saudi military display of what it claimed were Iranian cruise missiles and drones used in attacks on its oil industry at the Aramco facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais, during a press conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in September 2019., AP/Amr Nabil

It could well be the case that Washington decides to supply Patriot missiles and/or AMRAAMs while also continuing to push for an end to the war in Yemen and to highlight human rights abuses by the Saudi regime.

Without the delivery of more Patriot missiles and AMRAAMs, the Saudis could be left with a serious and worsening problem. After all, the alternative means of destroying or disabling these kinds of ballistic missile and drone attacks are few.

A Saudi F-15 shoots down a low-flying Houthi drone, in a video that emerged earlier this year:

For example, other types of ground-based air defense systems, as well as soft-kill systems, are normally only effective against drones at shorter ranges and lack the ability to provide coverage over a wide area. In the future, a directed-energy weapon might provide a more cost-effective option for destroying drones, but the vast majority of such weapons are still in development and are considered less proven than existing, but very expensive, hard-kill systems like missiles.

Defeating ballistic missiles is a harder proposition still and can only really be achieved by an advanced missile-based air-defense system. Alternatives to the Patriot are available, and, in the past, Russia has offered its S-400 system to Saudi Arabia. Still, even an order placed for Russian systems wouldn’t address the huge cost gap between defender and aggressor and those systems are not nearly as proven as the Patriot from this challenge mission set. There is also the reality that the U.S. would not likely allow it due to security concerns and sanctions are already imposed on allies that buy such Russian-made systems, which could send a fissure through the deep military relationship between The Kingdom and the United States. 

There is also a larger strategic issue involving Iran. Armed with many advanced ballistic missiles that would be used in large numbers during the opening hours of a conflict in the region, countering an Iranian barrage is the central mission of Saudi Arabia’s Patriot system. Without fresh stocks of missiles in place, The Kingdom’s own forces would be far more vulnerable. These forces could be key in an allied operation against Iran should hostilities break out. There is also a significant portion of the global oil supply that would be put at greater risk without Saudi Arabia’s Patriot system being active and well-stocked. 

Clearly, the threats that Saudi Arabia now faces are multiple, and there is no single solution that will be able to deal with ballistic missiles and drones effectively and affordably. For the time being, replenishing stocks of Patriot missiles and AMRAAMs would seem to be the most relevant approach, providing that the U.S. government allows such a deal to be executed.

Contact the author: