How a Patriot (Missile) Can Be a Traitor

Overconfidence in them could get us all killed.

Posted Apr 04, 2018

I think most readers would agree—regardless of their political inclinations—that confidence is a good thing, but that overconfidence isn't. The former can induce you to stretch a bit, attempt something you might otherwise avoid, and generally achieve somewhat more than if you were excessively timid. And the latter? Well, it can get you into hot water.

Which brings me to Patriot missiles, intended to function as an important part of an anti-ballistic missile system, defending against enemy incoming. As such, a large part of their role is psychological: generating civilian confidence that they are being protected. A good thing? Perhaps, at least for the government that deploys them, insofar as they tamp down citizen anxiety and reflect positively on that government. After all, the most important role of governments may well be to protect its people. 

There is, however, a glitch; actually, several. Number one: These patriotic protectors evidently don't work. And number two: they are nonetheless touted as though they do, and therein lies their particular danger.

First, their failings. In a recent article in "Foreign Affairs," Jeffrey Lewis, an analyst at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, examined the Saudi government's claim that it had used its US-supplied Patriot anti-missile missiles to successfully shoot down all seven rockets recently fired at Riyadh by Yemeni Houthi rebels. According to Lewis, who has been a consistently reliable expert on these matters, "Social media images do appear to show Saudi Patriot batteries firing interceptors. But what these videos show are not successes. One interceptor explodes catastrophically just after launch, while another makes a U-turn in midair and then comes screaming back at Riyadh, where it explodes on the ground."

On a previous occasion, one Patriot crashed within a few hundred meters of  Terminal 5, in Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport, while another came close to blowing up a Honda dealership (which, one can assume, had not been threatening the Saudis). There is, in fact, no evidence that these Patriots have ever intercepted an incoming missile, except during highly controlled tests, when the launch details were carefully circumscribed and choreographed in advance. 

Moreover, the US Defense Department has consistently exaggerated the Patriots' success. During the Gulf War, for example, it was claimed that 45 of 47 Scud missiles had been knocked down; subsequent research by the House Committee on Government Operations found that maybe a single Scud had been downed. Ferocious lobbying by the US Army and the Raytheon Corporation (the Patriot's prime civilian contractor) has kept other assessments of the missile's effectiveness classified Top Secret. I wonder why.

Time for a second "why." Why is this almost-certain false confidence important, and potentially lethal? President Trump has given every indication that he is among many—admittedly, the most important one—to have been taken in. “We have missiles that can knock out a missile in the air 97 percent of the time," he recently replied, apparently emulating the Patriot missiles' reputation, and pulling this number out of the air when asked about the prospect of North Korean retaliation to a possible "bloody nose" attack. "And if you send two of them," according to our credulous Commander in Chief, "it’s going to get knocked down.”

Trump really seems to be a true believer. Insofar as this might give him a free hand when it comes to initiating hostilities—a viewpoint unlikely to be disputed by a Secretary of State Pompeo or National Security Adviser Bolton—we are all in Big Trouble.