A new study in the New York Times suggests that Saudi Arabia's state of the art defense system failed to intercept the ballistic missile fired by Yemen's Houthi rebels which nearly hit Riyadh's international airport on November 4th. The report contradicts the official claims of the Saudi and American governments, which both announced immediately after the incident that the US-supplied Patriot missile defense system had successfully intercepted the Houthi fired Scud.
The analysis, which utilized open-source material in the form of available video and social media photos of the aftermath of the attack, was conducted by a team of missile experts, and threatens to shake confidence in the US system, which is currently implemented by American allies around the world from South Korea and Taiwan to Turkey, Israel and Japan, among others.
And notably President Trump himself had announced while aboard Air Force One on the day following the attack, “Our system knocked the missile out of the air.” Trump also emphasized the importance of demonstrable success of the systems and added, “That’s how good we are. Nobody makes what we make, and now we’re selling it all over the world.”
But The New York Times report begins with a flat contradiction of that claim:
The official story was clear: Saudi forces shot down a ballistic missile fired by Yemen’s Houthi rebel group last month at Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh. It was a victory for the Saudis and for the United States, which supplied the Patriot missile defense system.
...But an analysis of photos and videos of the strike posted to social media suggests that story may be wrong. Instead, evidence analyzed by a research team of missile experts appears to show the missile’s warhead flew unimpeded over Saudi defenses and nearly hit its target, Riyadh’s airport. The warhead detonated so close to the domestic terminal that customers jumped out of their seats.
The Houthi missile was identified at the time as a Burqan-2, revealed in a video of the November 4 launch produced by a Houthi group, and is a variant of the Scud missile commonly used in the region. The attack took Middle East observers by surprise as the missile traveled about 600 miles and reveals a growing sophistication in the Houthi arsenal - all of which led to a number of researchers to claim Iranian origins of the weapon, something which Iran and its regional allies continue to deny.
As part of the NYT investigation experts primarily examined the multiple videos and photos of missile debris locations and missile parts, and concluded that the Saudis couldn't have intercepted the warhead, which further appears to have exploded on impact, something which wouldn't have happened had the projectile been effectively intercepted.
The report continues:
Saudi officials said the debris, which appears to belong to a downed Burqan-2, showed a successful shootdown. But an analysis of the debris shows that the warhead components – the part of the missile that carries the explosives – were missing. The missing warhead signaled something important to the analysts: that the missile may have evaded Saudi defenses.
...This would explain why the debris in Riyadh only appears to consist of the rear tube. And it suggests that the Saudis may have missed the missile, or only hit the tube after it had separated and begun to fall uselessly toward earth.
Researchers also examined extensive video and eyewitness testimony from the airport and in the vicinity of what the Saudi authorities initially reported as mere falling debris, however, the evidence points to an explosion that could only be explained by the impact of the warhead, which likely evaded the defensive measures. Videos recorded an explosion which occurred at a location very near the main domestic terminal of the airport, the immediate aftermath of which was clearly visible and was strongly felt inside the terminal.
Video sequence showing footage collected from the November 4th attack.
The warhead, the report says, continued on its trajectory after mid-air separation from the rest of the missile, which it is designed to do, making it harder to intercept as it nears its target. Though Saudi officials claimed that it was only debris from an intercepted missile that hit the airport, researchers concluded:
The blast was small, and satellite imagery of the airport taken immediately before and after the blast is not detailed enough to capture the crater from the impact, the analysts said. But it does show ground damage from the emergency vehicles, supporting the finding that the warhead hit just off the runway.
While the Houthis missed their target, Mr. Lewis said, they got close enough to show that their missiles can reach it and can evade Saudi defenses. “A kilometer is a pretty normal miss rate for a Scud,” he said. “The Houthis got very close to creaming that airport.”
One scientist cited in the report, Laura Grego, noted that it's hugely significant that the Saudis fired five times at the incoming missile and missed. "You shoot five times at this missile and they all miss? That's shocking,” she said. “That's shocking because this system is supposed to work.”
Though the Saudi government didn't respond to the report, and will likely not address the findings, it will be interesting to see the Patriot system's performance during the next incursion. As fighting is continuing to intensify in neighboring Yemen, it is likely only a matter of time.