Liability Versus Deterrent: The Patriot Missile Defense System

Photograph of missiles accompanied by Romanian troops
"161107-F-QP401-047" by DoD News is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)

On March 25, Houthi rebels launched a series of missiles at Riyadh in an another attempt to push Saudi Arabia into reacting and escalating tensions in the ongoing Yemen War. Saudi Arabia has issued a statement claiming that their Patriot Missile Defense System was able to intercept all seven missiles, successfully protecting the population from Houthi attack. The Patriot Missile Defense System is a set of “radars, command-and-control technology and multiple types of interceptors, currently used by 15 countries, including Germany, Japan, Israel, Spain, and Qatar. Yet, despite the confidence behind the Saudi statements, reports were made about the repeated malfunctioning of the Patriot Missile Defense System, and the Saudis’ need to cover up the failure of the system. Similar cases occurred in November and December of 2017 in Saudi Arabia, with the Israeli Air Force pointing to the fact that there is no evidence of even a single successful intercept.” Notably, there are different versions of the system, all of which are upgrades from the previous versions, all of which differ in efficiency. However, despite the upgrades in efficiency, one ought to evaluate whether governments covering up the (in)effectiveness of the defense system works to benefit citizens’ security or create a more unsafe world. According to Jerry Lewis  and his team at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, an analysis of the effectiveness of Patriot system leads to a troubling result: governments either lie about the effectiveness of the Patriot system, or they are greatly misinformed. Either way, their results are not reassuring for greater security.

Even if the Patriot Defense System works and most of the critique of it is ill-based, there is something to be said about the ways in which governments communicate their ability to protect to their citizens. On one hand, the Patriot system serves as a great rhetorical tool for governments to prove their commitment and ability to protect. As seen in the case of Saudi Arabia, despite the headlines and social media posts giving information about the failure of the Patriot system, the Saudi government firmly remained in its position that the defense system has worked, affirming their commitment to protect citizens. However, one must also acknowledge that ‘false security’ rhetoric brings into danger many of the members off the society. People who might otherwise be ready to run seek shelter and protect themselves and their families  are not allowed enough time to find a safe space in case of attack, as they believe that danger is not imminent. Arguably, the false feeling of security prevents public panic, but notably it also reduces the overall security of the society.

One can take this conversation a step further in order to understand whether governments have the responsibility to share military information with their citizens and allies, or if they reserve discretion to determine how will they use the information. Even though a defense system might be faulty, a government’s decision not to share the information with the public might lead to people feeling safe and deterring adversaries’ attacks by convincing them they have the means to defend themselves. On the contrary one might raise the question of  the U.S.’ responsibility towards its own allies. By masking the truth, the U.S. might be giving allies a false feeling of security that in times of need might cause a backlash in terms of lack of trust towards cooperating with the U.S. But more than that it might reduce allies’ capacity to defend themselves, and ultimately affect U.S. security through weakening the allies. This point comes as especially important as more countries attempt to strike deals to acquire the Patriot system.

Discussion about the effectiveness of the Patriot Missile Defense System should not be only a technical discussion about a certain type of arms; rather, it should motivate an honest discussion about government’s obligation towards its citizens and international community in providing security.

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Luka Ignac is a second-year student of Political Science and French and founder of MGV World, with a focus on terrorism, International Relations, China, French Politics and Culture, Diplomacy, American Foreign Policy, and the European Union.