A record number of ballistic missile and drone attacks have tested Saudi air defense capabilities. They’ve succeeded admirably but at a high cost.
Saudi Arabia has come under intensive attacks by ballistic missiles and explosive-laden drones for the past few weeks in an apparent attempt by the Iranian-backed Houthi militias in Yemen to force the kingdom to concede to their demands to end the six-year-long Yemeni War. However, robust Saudi air defenses have negated these attacks by intercepting the majority of the incoming projectiles.
“The accomplishments of the Royal Saudi Air Defense Forces (RSADF) are impressive… The RSADF is now the global leader in (ballistic) missile intercepts,” said David DesRoches, a professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at National Defense University in Washington DC.
DesRoches pointed out that the RSADF “has in effect modernized itself while at war. There is no evidence that any Houthi ballistic missile fired into the interior of Saudi Arabia. This is an amazing achievement.”
In a press briefing in the Saudi capital Riyadh on March 8 the spokesman for the Saudi-led Arab coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen, Col. Turki al-Malki, said the coalition has destroyed most of the 350 ballistic missiles and 550 explosive-laden drones fired by the Houthis. “No country in the world has been able to confront these drones the way Saudi Arabia has,” he stressed.
Saudi Arabia has been leading an Arab coalition to restore the internationally-recognized Yemeni government that was deposed by the Houthi militias that took control of large parts of the country in 2015.
The staggering number of ballistic missiles and drones fired at Saudi Arabia does place it on the top of the list of countries targeted by such weapons.
“Most missiles and drones hit nothing, even if not intercepted. Most drones have tiny payloads that are not designed to causes personnel losses,” said Michael Knights, a Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “We also let a lot of missiles and rockets go because we can tell them are not hitting anything.”
The Saudi Air Force has been using the Patriot PAC-3 as its main ballistic missiles defense system. It is also equipped with a variety of short- and medium-range surface-to-air missiles such as the Improved Hawk, Shahine and Mistral.
The Royal Saudi Air Force is the only one in the Middle East that operates the Boeing E-3A Sentry commonly known as AWACS, which along with 2 SAAB-2000 Erieye planes, helps provide a strong early warning capability that is crucial for an effective air defense.
Separate inspection teams by the United Nations and other Western powers have concluded that all the ballistic missiles and drones fired by the Houthis against Saudi Arabia came from Iran. It is believed that most of them were smuggled in pieces to Yemen and were assembled by the Houthi militias.
Al-Maliki pointed out that the ballistic missiles and armed drones that have been launched by the Houthi militias in Yemen were manufactured by Iran.
The British Foreign Secretary commented on the Houthi attacks on the kingdom by saying on March 29 that “It’s unacceptable that Iranian missiles are being used against Saudi Arabia and we wish to see an end to that.”
Iranian officials have denied supplying the Houthis with missiles and drones.
The most damaging attack against Saudi oil facilities was in 2019 when swarms of drones and cruise missiles fired from the northwest hit the Abqaiq oil fields in northern Saudi Arabia.
DesRoches said that the Iranians have been developing their tactics in the missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia, and have been looking for “a seam in the air coverage” to exploit it.
“The Saudis are adapting to this by shifting their sensor packages, relocating and enhancing their interceptors, and it appears to be they are conducting better vulnerability analysis of their defended asset list to ensure they protect things that are truly critical,” DesRoches said.
Kinghts agreed: “Saudi air defense against ballistic missiles has been decent and improving.”
He noted that attempts by the Houthis to hit targets deep into Saudi Arabia have failed because “drones are proving susceptible to interception when they travel long distances.”
However, the Yemen conflict has proved to be a costly war of attrition to the Saudis who are forced to allocate a lot of much needed funds to consolidate their air defense capabilities, in addition to the military operations in Yemen.
“The Saudi Patriot missiles cost about $4.3M each – they fire at least two at each incoming target. The price of each Iranian missile cost a fraction of that,” DesRoches said.
“Ultimately, the fact that so many missiles are being intercepted in the Kingdom means that the Kingdom has been unsuccessful in deterring those who would attack it” Des Roches added. “It is very difficult to determine and interdict missile points of launch.”
Saudi Arabia has announced on March 23 an initiative to reach a cease fire in Yemen to pave the way for efforts by the United Nations to broker a political settlement to the Yemeni conflict. However, the Houthi militia leaders have rejected the initiative and pressed on with their missile and drone attacks that seem to have intensified ever since President Joe Biden’s administration removed on February 12 the group from list of terrorist organizations.