Houthis Expose Massive Holes in Saudi Arabia’s Missile Defense

The Houthi attacks have put a spotlight on the missile defenses of Saudi Arabia. The country’s military is one of the best equipped globally thanks to the world’s third-largest military budget, with hundreds of billions of dollars spent on fighter planes, tanks and other military hardware. But the kingdom’s American-made Patriot missile-defense system has a mixed record when it comes to intercepting projectiles from Yemen and isn’t primarily designed for repelling drones.

“The recent events show that we are exposed in terms of our defense,” said one Saudi official who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.

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Iran-Allied Houthis Expose Holes in Saudi Arabia’s Missile Defense

CAIRO—Yemen’s Houthi rebels have accelerated missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia in recent weeks, highlighting the kingdom’s military vulnerabilities in defending itself against an Iranian ally amid a crisis in U.S.-Iran relations.

The Houthis have executed 10 missile or drone attacks since April on Saudi airports, a desalination plant, a major oil pipeline and other targets, escalating fighting on a key front in the regionwide confrontation between U.S. and Iran. The Houthi attacks have occurred around the same time as the tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman that the U.S. has blamed on Iran.

U.S. officials and analysts say Iran has deepened its cooperation with the Houthis as the country seeks ways to harass its American and Saudi adversaries. Iran denies controlling the Houthis and says it wasn’t responsible for the tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman.

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The Houthi attacks have put a spotlight on the missile defenses of Saudi Arabia. The country’s military is one of the best equipped globally thanks to the world’s third-largest military budget, with hundreds of billions of dollars spent on fighter planes, tanks and other military hardware. But the kingdom’s American-made Patriot missile-defense system has a mixed record when it comes to intercepting projectiles from Yemen and isn’t primarily designed for repelling drones.

“The recent events show that we are exposed in terms of our defense,” said one Saudi official who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.

A spokesman for the Saudi military coalition against the Houthis didn’t respond to a request for comment on the strikes.

The Saudi government has claimed their defenses have been successful in the past, such as in March 2018 when the kingdom said its Patriots successfully intercepted seven Scud missiles fired by the Houthis. Videos published on social media, however, showed Saudi Patriot systems misfiring during the incident, including one that made a U-turn and plunged to the ground.

The Houthis’ ability to seemingly strike at will in Saudi Arabia highlights the risks that the Saudis, a key U.S. ally, have become bogged down in a costly, four-year-old conflict that it can’t win outright. The Houthis have demonstrated increasing sophistication and range with projectile attacks, launching more armed drones and cruise missiles despite a Saudi blockade on Yemen to stop such arms from getting into the country.

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The Houthis’ most recent attack, a drone strike Sunday on the airport in the city of Abha near the Yemeni border, killed one person and injured 21 others, according to the Saudi military. Two other strikes in the past two weeks used cruise missiles, marking the first time the Houthis have fired such weapons since 2017.

The tactics indicate the rebels’ willingness to target major civilian infrastructure. “Our ballistic and winged missiles and aircraft of all kinds can hit any target throughout the geography of Saudi Arabia,” a Houthi military spokesman said June 20 on one of the group’s official Twitter accounts.

Saudi officials have directly blamed Tehran for some of the attacks. Saudi and U.S. officials have accused Iran of providing the Houthis with the training and designs to build their drones, while drones recovered in Yemen by United Arab Emirates forces show imported Iranian technology, according to Conflict Armament Research, a weapons expert group that works with governments around the world.

“Everything points toward the direction that Iran and the Houthis have teamed up for their mutual benefit to increase missile and drone attacks against targets in recent days and weeks,” said Fabian Hinz, an independent analyst based in Germany who is monitoring the recent Yemeni strikes.

Saudi Arabia, citing the Houthi and tanker attacks, has called for unspecified but decisive action against Iran while stopping short of calling for a full-blown war.

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Though Saudi Arabia’s military is well-equipped, a war with Iran would be devastating and possibly unwinnable. Iran boasts a large conventional military, and its powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps specializes in asymmetrical warfare and can pull on its ties with militant groups across the Middle East.

The Saudis have put to the test their ability to use Western arms in their war against the Houthis, leading a bombing campaign to support ground troops provided by other countries such as Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen’s internationally recognized government. The war, a symbol of the kingdom’s aggressive new foreign policy led by the young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has left more than 10,000 people dead and created a humanitarian crisis.

The campaign has failed to defeat the Iranian-allied rebels and left the kingdom vulnerable to Houthi retaliatory strikes. Missile defense in general is technologically challenging—even Israel’s Iron Dome fails to stop some of the rockets launched by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip—and the Houthis have used a mix of drones and cruise missiles to find weaknesses in the Saudis’ defenses.

The Saudi-led military coalition said it launched more airstrikes on the Yemeni port city of Hodeida on June 21 in an apparent response to the recent strikes.

The Saudi-led coalition launched its assault on Yemen in 2014 after the Houthis ousted the Saudi- and U.S.-recognized government from the capital San’a. The Saudi-led coalition briefly applied a blockade on Yemen in 2017, and aid groups have warned that the war has forced millions to the brink of starvation.

Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen is also at the center of debate over a plan by the Trump administration to sell some $8 billion in weapons to the kingdom and other Middle East allies. President Trump cited the need to counter Iranian influence in Yemen when he vetoed a congressional resolution to end the U.S. role in the war. The U.S. backs the Saudi military coalition in Yemen with logistical support and intelligence.

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