The Wall Street Journal on June 18 reported that the United States would be pulling most of its air defense systems out of the Persian Gulf and from Jordan, claiming those countries could adequately defend themselves and that the US air defenses were needed elsewhere to confront both Russia and China.
The affected countries include Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait and Jordan.
The systems that are being removed include eight Patriot air defense batteries and the single THAAD ballistic missile defense unit that was moved to Saudi Arabia after the cruise missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil installations at Abqaiq-Khurais in September 2019.
In April, the Biden administration also pulled three batteries of Patriot defenses out of Saudi Arabia. The pullout leaves several US bases in the area vulnerable to air attacks. These include US bases in Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan and Saudi Arabia itself.
In the past few years, US bases have been repeatedly hit by rocket fire, often by Katyushas, but also by heavier missiles. In March 2021, the shared Iraqi-US base at Al-Asad and the smaller base at Erbil were struck by more than 20 Iranian-made missiles, a mix of Fateh 313 and Qiam types.
Fateh 313 is Iran’s latest short-range solid-fuel ballistic missile. Qiam-2 is a derivative of a North Korean Scud-type missile, also produced in Iran. US authorities attributed the strike to pro-Iran militias, although the equipment, mapping, reconnaissance and perhaps the operation itself was run by Iranian missile forces inside Iraqi territory.
At the time of the attacks, which wounded more than 100 US personnel – mainly from concussions – and damaged many buildings and aircraft, the only air defense system at the base was the gun-based C-RAM, which was ineffective.
The Biden administration has not explained how it will protect US troops and installations after the Patriots are removed. Nor has the administration been clear about where the removed Patriot systems, or for that matter the THAAD, will be redeployed, if at all.
It is unclear how these systems, with the possible exception of THAAD, could be of much use in Asia.
The US and its allies Japan and South Korea already have in place extensive air defenses, although there are some notable coverage gaps that would not be fixed by more Patriot deployments.
Japan operates 24 PAC-3 Patriot systems at 15 different bases, some of them now being upgraded by the new Missile Segment Enhancement (MSE), a hit-to-kill vehicle with better digital intercept electronics and a more powerful dual-pulse rocket engine.
The US operates another eight Patriot systems, mostly based on the Japanese island of Okinawa. The US also operates eight PAC-3 units in South Korea, and the South Koreans run their own Patriot air defenses and are enhancing them. South Korea also has its own domestically produced air defenses.
Taiwan received its first PAC-2 systems in 1997. Taiwan is completing the upgrade of the PAC-2s into PAC-3s and bought new PAC-3 systems. The upgraded PAC-2s and newly purchased PAC-3s were delivered to Taiwan in 2017.
Taiwan now has more than 400 PAC missiles deployed and is now upgrading them to PAC-3 MSE, a project that won’t be completed until 2025 or 2026.
In addition to land-based Patriots and other locally designed air defenses, the US and its allies have deployed the highly effective Aegis ballistic missile defense (BMD) system. The US has 17 US Navy destroyers in the Pacific, eight of them homeported in San Diego, four in Pearl Harbor and five in Yokosuka.
These ships feature some of the latest interceptors and can operate against short and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. The US Aegis system is featured on Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and Ticonderoga-class cruisers.
Japan and South Korea also have Aegia or the equivalent. The US is cutting back procurement of new Arleigh Burke-class destroyers in the proposed Biden administration defense budget.
Guam and South Korea each have THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), a land-based endo and exo-atmospheric missile defense system keyed primarily on intermediate-range ballistic missiles. The US controversially deployed THAAD in South Korea and, with less fanfare, in Guam.
In South Korea, THAAD offers some solid protection against a nuclear missile strike from North Korea and helps to protect US and South Korean bases, as well as South Korea’s major cities from nuclear and missile attacks.
In Guam, which includes Anderson Air Base at Yigo and nearby US Naval Force Marianas (plus a smaller naval base in Apra Harbor at Guam), a single THAAD battery is in place. Guam is the main staging location for US strategic bombers including the B-52 and B1-B, although the aircraft are home-based in the US.
The navy base can support US warships including aircraft carriers – it is where the USS Theodore Roosevelt was sent after its crew came down with Covid-19 in late January 2020. There is no information that the US intends to move THAAD to Guam and it is likewise uncertain that a second THAAD could be put in South Korea, given the many voices in South Korea still opposing the original THAAD deployment.
There are obviously significant air defense challenges for the US in Asia, even more so than in Eastern Europe, but these largely center on drones and cruise missiles on the one hand and the soon-to-arrive next generation of hypersonic weapons on the other. These challenges are not met by Patriot or THAAD.
It would seem that the Biden administration has actually made a strategic decision to allow Iran to dominate a good part of the Middle East in exchange for a nuclear agreement whose enforceability is highly suspect.
The administration appears to believe that by yielding to Iran’s geopolitical and ideologically objectives it could wean Iran away from Russia and possibly even China.
This leaves US forces increasingly vulnerable to attack, including by Iran-backed proxies. It probably also means that Israel’s air defense know-how will likely have to find a home in certain Persian Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia.
Likewise, it is clear that the removed air defenses are not relevant to securing Asian bases or protecting Asian allies and friends of the United States.