Defenders of the kingdom: Saudi Arabia’s Patriot missiles keeping Houthi attacks at bay

Travelling four times the speed of sound, the missiles are one of the kingdom's most efficient safeguard

Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia have intensified in frequency over recent weeks, but most have been foiled by a particular weaponry system.

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After US forces removed two of their Patriot anti-missile batteries from the kingdom in May 2020 – a move that the Pentagon described as “routine” – Saudi Arabia reportedly replaced them with its own Lockheed Martin Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) missiles.

They have the capability to move at 5,000 kilometres an hour – four times the speed of sound – and were part of a $15 billion missile defence system deal finalised in 2018 between Saudi Arabia and Lockheed.

Saudi Arabia is one of 14 nations to have purchased the technology.

Such high-precision, high-to-medium altitude, long-range air defence systems are important when targeting smaller threats like drones or short-range ballistic missiles.

The mechanism the Patriot PAC-3 missiles uses to destroy targets is simple: direct contact which results in an explosion. The exact point of interception needs to be determined before its launch but can be updated while the missile is in the air.

Washington-based consultancy firm Gulf State Analytics estimates Saudi Arabia has shot down over 300 ballistic missiles and more than 340 Houthi drones using the Patriot PAC-3 missiles.

Tensions between Riyadh and Tehran soared following attacks on Saudi oil-giant Aramco's facilities in 2019 that affected about six per cent of the world’s total oil supply. Yemen’s Houthi rebels took responsibility for the strikes, a claim that UN investigators disputed.

In November, the Houthis hit a Saudi oil facility in Jeddah, but made no impact on oil supplies, the Saudi Minister of Energy said at the time.