A significant portion of the U.S. Army's Patriot surface-to-air missile force have been or are in the process of being deployed to the Middle East in response to the ongoing Israel-Gaza crisis. This is in addition to many other obligations around the globe. Though this reflects the immense ability of the U.S. military to project power worldwide, it also underscores the stark limitations of its existing ground-based air and missile defense capacity.
Concerns about what this means for the prospect of adequately defending U.S. forces deployed overseas, as well as the U.S. homeland, is something senior U.S. military leaders, as well as The War Zone, have been drawing attention to for some time.
Since the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas launched its unprecedented attacks on southern Israel on October 7, the U.S. military has announced the deployment of a slew of forces to the Middle East, including two aircraft carrier strike groups, a Marine Expeditionary Unit, and multiple squadrons of U.S. Air Force combat jets. A senior U.S. defense official confirmed to The War Zone and other outlets today that two full Patriot battalions are among other additional Army air and missile defenses that have also been rushing to the region. U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon's top spokesperson had said last week that the Patriot units would come from Fort Liberty (formerly Fort Bragg) in North Carolina and Fort Sill in Oklahoma.
The Army has also been in the process of sending a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery from Fort Bliss in Texas and Avenger short-range air defense systems from Fort Liberty to the Middle East in the past week. Online flight tracking data has shown U.S. Air Force cargo aircraft flying sorties that look to show at least some of these deployments. This is part of a larger ongoing U.S. airbridge that has been delivering military aid to Israel, as well as moving personnel and materiel to other locations in the Middle East. The operation comes in response to growing concerns that the Israel-Gaza conflict will spill over elsewhere in the region involving heavily armed Iranian proxy groups, as well as Iran itself.
The Army's two Patriot battalions may not look like much of a contribution at first glance, but the service only has 17 of them in total.
Each battalion has a headquarters element and between three and five firing batteries. Each battery can have up to eight trailer-mounted launchers, as well as an AN/MPQ-65 multifunction phased array radar and requisite fire control, communications, and other support equipment. The latest generation of Patriot launchers can be loaded with a mix of different interceptors optimized for various, including cruise missiles and drones flying at lower altitudes and certain types of ballistic missiles in the terminal stages of their flight. You can read more about the capabilities of the different available interceptors here.
Of the 17 battalions the Army has, two are dedicated training units that are not available for deployment. In addition, at least four of the Army's remaining Patriot battalions are in Germany, Japan, and South Korea. Other Patriot units have been deployed elsewhere in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia, in the past, as well.
So, the pair of battalions that have been tasked to deploy to the Middle East represent just over 13 percent of the Army's total deployable Patriots and at least around 20 percent of those systems, and possibly more, that aren't already on station elsewhere outside the United States.
It is also worth noting that the single THAAD battery that is part of the Army air and missile defense package being sent to the Middle East is one of just seven of those units active today. Two more are also deployed outside of the continental United States, one in South Korea and one on the U.S. island of Guam in the Western Pacific. The Army is currently hoping to field an eighth THAAD battery by 2025.
The Army is not blind to the issues at play here or their seriousness, especially when it comes to Patriot.
"The Army senior leaders — from the secretary [of the Army to] the chief [of staff] — they recognize the demands on the Patriot force," Lt. Gen. Daniel Karbler, head of U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, told reporters at the 2023 Space and Missile Defense Symposium back in August, according to Defense News. "We are addressing that through increasing our Patriot units that are out there."
Karbler did not offer details at the time about what the target size for the Army's Patriot force is now and when the service might reach that goal. He did however cite recruiting challenges that make it difficult to stand up new Army air and missile defense units, which are compounded by the global demand for those capabilities.
“Many times, soldiers go for six months and get extended to nine months," Karbler said at this year's Space and Missile Defense Symposium, according to Breaking Defense. "Many times, they deploy for nine months and extend to 12 months [and] sometimes they think they’re going for a year to get extended … into 15 months."
In 2021, the U.S. military notably withdrew Patriot batteries from Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, as well as a THAAD battery from Saudi Arabia. This was ostensibly done to try to free up some of those assets for potential deployment elsewhere, including the Pacific region, if necessary.
In recent years, senior U.S. officials have also highlighted the growing need for Patriot and other surface-to-air missile systems to help defend the homeland in the face of growing potential threats, especially from China and Russia. There is now even talk about the possibility of having air defense systems permanently or semi-permanently deployed domestically, something that has not been the case outside of the Washington, D.C. area since the Cold War.
In the meantime, the size of the Army's existing air and missile defense arsenal imposes real limits on what it can and cannot offer in terms of air and missile defenses in response to crises and other contingencies.
In the current context, additional air and missile defenses are an important part of U.S. government efforts to deter Iran and its proxies from further escalating strikes on Israel or American forces across the Middle East, which could lead to a wider war. Many Iranian-backed groups in the region, especially Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, have the ability to target their opponents in many different countries using long-range missiles and drones.
The U.S. Navy's Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Carney shooting down four land-attack cruise missiles and 19 drones that the Houthis had launched on October 19, which may have been headed for Israel, highlighted these threats and the potential for spillover.
These fears have also been underscored by near-constant rocket and drone attacks from Iranian-backed groups aimed at facilities hosting American forces in Iraq and Syria. Those incidents, which are still continuing, prompted U.S. retaliatory airstrikes on a pair of Iranian-linked facilities in Syria near the Iraqi border last week.
Iran has, of course, also demonstrated its willingness to openly target U.S. forces directly over the years. This includes ballistic missile strikes in 2020 aimed at bases in Iraq hosting American personnel in retaliation for the U.S. targeted killing of General Qasem Soleimani, then head of the Quds Force, the external operations arm of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). That incident, which injured dozens of U.S. service members, but thankfully did not lead to any fatalities, had also prompted significant controversy surrounding the question of why Patriots and other air and missile defenses were not in position beforehand. In 2018, the Pentagon had directed the withdrawal of Patriot units in the region to free them up for use elsewhere, including in the Pacific, just like it did again three years later.
Other U.S. allies or partners in the Middle East have reason now to be concerned about getting directly swept up in current events, too. Though the U.S. military has not said where the Army air and missile defense units are headed, Jordanian Army spokesperson Brigadier General Mustafa Hiyari confirmed on state television earlier today that his country was among those that had asked for the deployment of Patriot systems.
Jordan's Muwaffaq Salti Air Base is a major staging location for U.S. airpower and a critical intrathreater transit hub for American forces, and has been in especially heavy use since the current Israel-Gaza conflict erupted. A Patriot battery is likely desired to protect this shared air base.
The forward operating base in At Tanf in Syria, which sits in a tri-border region opposite northeastern Jordan and southwestern Iraq, has been a top target of attacks from Iranian-backed proxies, as well. It has come under sporadic attack for the better part of a decade, but in recent weeks, it has been the focus of drone and rocket strikes. A Patriot battery located across the border near the border in Jordan could cover At Tanf as a contingency against wider-scale attacks should the conflict erupt throughout the reason. A shield against Iranian ballistic missiles would be of particular need.
Regardless, the current tasking for Patriot batteries, which is already consuming the better part of half the available force, pales in comparison to what a major crisis in the Pacific would demand. U.S. and allied forces in this vast theater would be facing an unprecedented set of threats in the air, with long-range drones, cruise missiles, and especially ballistic missiles, as well as hypersonic weapons, putting locales at risk over vast areas.
The distributed model of basing that the U.S. military is pursuing only complicates this further as far more patriot batteries would be needed to cover forward-operating forces. This is a huge departure from the more centralized concept of basing operations that has existed for decades and that the Patriot force is tailored for now. Even major military facilities and population centers far from the front will be at risk of attacks, including asymmetric ones such as from drones. As already noted, the homeland will not be safe in such a conflict, either, and ground-based air defenses will be needed, although they are unlikely to be available.
Then there is Russia and America's NATO commitment to contend with should what is already a very precarious situation become even more so.
There is simply not nearly enough capacity in the Patriot system force structure to come close to meeting these needs, let alone dealing with combat attrition on top of them. The Patriot system is in massive international demand, including in Ukraine, and with backorders running deep and being only likely to grow even deeper in the near term, this could present additional challenges for the Army.
The Army may also seek to acquire a successor to Patriot and the service is already in the process of upgrading its existing system, including through the addition of new Lower Tier Air and Missile Defense Sensor (LTAMDS) radars. However, these are long-term efforts that don't address critical shortfalls now.
Altogether, it is no surprise that additional Army air and missile defense assets are among forces the U.S. military has sent to the Middle East to bolster its posture amid the ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict. At the same time, it shows just how in-demand these capabilities are and how quickly they can become stretched beyond their existing capacity.
Considering the threats that are growing, especially in Asia, this is a major problem.
Howard Altman contributed to this report.
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