How a Dangerous Air Defence Shortage is Leaving U.S. Forces Increasingly Vulnerable in the Mideast, East Asia and Europe

The United States Military’s growing involvement in ongoing hostilities between Israel and Palestinian militia groups in the Gaza Strip, the deployment of new air defence assets to the Middle East as part of a broader surge in the country’s regional military presence has brought to light the growing strain on American air defences worldwide. Shortages in the quantities of assets available has been a leading driver of the issue, and appears unlikely to be addressed due to limited production capacities for existing air defence systems. The U.S. relies on ground based air defence systems not only for commitments in the Middle East, but also across multiple other theatres most notably Eastern Europe and the Pacific – in the former facing large Russian missile arsenals and in the latter the arsenals of Russia, China and North Korea combined. This has meant that allocation of new units to the Middle East, and earlier in the year donations to Ukraine, has serious implications for the balance of power in other regions. As China, North Korea, Russia and Iran, termed in Pentagon reports as America’s four ‘great power adversaries,’ have all continued to tremendously expand their missile capabilities, the very slow rate at which the U.S. Army has been able to acquire new air defence systems has ensured a continued diminishing of its ability to rely on such assets. 

Recently reinforcing American and allied forces in the Middle East, the U.S. Army deployed two of its 15 frontline battalions of Patriot missile systems – or 13 percent of the overall arsenal. A further two battalions are dedicated to training, while at least four of the active battalions have been deployed in Germany, Japan and South Korea. The donation of Patriot systems to Ukraine, some of which have taken losses in combat, has further depleted the arsenal, while much greater depletion of Ukraine’s Soviet built air defence network has only increased the importance of receiving new systems. Each Patriot battalion is comprised of a headquarters element, and three to five firing batteries each with up to eight trailer mounted launchers surface to air missiles. Each also integrates an AN/MPQ-65 radar and various supporting equipment such as communications systems. The Patriot is particularly heavily relied on due to the lack of equivalent Western systems capable of providing a comparable defence against short ranged tactical ballistic missiles, which fly at lower altitudes than longer ranged missiles. Such missiles are fielded in very large numbers not only by the ‘great power adversaries,’ but also for more minor potential targets for American attacks such as Syria, Belarus, Algeria and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah which have acquired them from either Russia or North Korea. 

The vulnerability of American targets to short range ballistic missile attacks was demonstrated by a limited Iranian strike in early January 2020 which caused 109 American casualties when targeting a base in Iraq using indigenous missiles. Syria has also used its ballistic missiles to launch precise attacks on oil extraction facilities in the country’s northeast, which are under Turkish control and had illegally extracted Syrian oil to help fund Turkish-backed militias there. The possibility of similar strikes on American facilities in northwestern Syria, where illegal oil extraction operations are considerably larger, has widely been raised, with the size of the Syrian arsenal potentially posing an unprecedented threat to U.S. forces. The Iranian and Syrian arsenals are nevertheless dwarfed by those fielded by Russia, China and North Korea each, meaning diversion of Patriots to the Middle East will only leave American forces more vulnerable in East Asia and Eastern Europe.

Russia has not only continued to produce surface to air missiles on several times the scale of the United States, but it has also expanded manifold the scale of production of advanced ballistic missiles for its Iskander short ranged system since early 2022. This has significantly increased the pressure on already limited Western air defence capabilities in Europe and Northeast Asia. Nevertheless, with its three leading adversaries outside the Middle East increasingly fielding missiles which are considered beyond the capabilities of the Patriot to reliably intercept, using irregular semi ballistic trajectories like the Korean KN-23 and Russian Iskander, or even hypersonic glide vehicles like the Chinese DF-17, Patriots may well be able to have more of an effect in the Middle East where arsenals are still comprised primarily of less advanced missile designs. 

Alongside the Patriot, the United States in October redeployed a single THAAD high altitude air defence system from Fort Bliss in Texas to an undisclosed location in the Middle East. THAAD is a significantly more expensive system designed to provide a defence against longer ranged attacks and thus engage missiles at much higher altitudes. Only seven units are in service, and with deliveries remaining slow the next unit is expected to enter service only in 2025. Any potential losses in combat would thus be a major blow and limit the Army’s ability to respond to a wider range of threats with new deployments. All four ‘great power adversaries’ field medium or intermediate range ballistic missiles which would require THAAD systems to defend against, although Russia deploys such missiles only as air to surface platforms and has yet to field any longer ranged surface to surface tactical missiles. The most prominent other deployments of THAAD systems have been on Guam, where they were stationed under the Obama administration to defend against new generations of North Korean intermediate range ballistic missiles. The systems were also deployed to South Korea from 2016, which has been considered highly controversial due to its implications for Sino-Korean relations and its potential to draw the country in to a potential armed confrontation between America and its regional adversaries.

The effectiveness of THAAD deployments beyond the continental United States has increasingly been brought to question as not only China and North Korea bring hypersonic glide vehicles into service, which allow strikes to be delivered far too fast for reliable interception, but also as Iran shows signs of having developed such a missile with possible Korean assistance. While Iran’s lack of nuclear weapons limits the threat its missile strikes can pose to American forces, the high degree of precision which it has demonstrated even with longer ranged attacks still raises serious questions regarding the sufficiency of American air defence assets deployed in the Middle East. The Patriot in particular, unlike competing Russian, Chinese and North Korean systems, is unable to provide a wide area defence or to fire 360 degrees around it which seriously limits the territories it is able to protect. While during the Gulf War in 1990-91 the United States was able to deploy the bulk of its forces including its tactical missile defence assets to the Middle East, where they were intended to counter Iraq’s very meagre and outdated ballistic missile arsenal albeit with highly questionable effect, today simultaneous tensions with multiple much more formidable military powers has placed America in a much weaker position to counter potential missile attacks.