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Israel’s Patriot Air Defense: Counting Systems and Assessing Capabilities

Israel’s Patriot Air Defense: Counting Systems and Assessing Capabilities

Yann Yann
Air Defense Israel Israeli Air Force Middle East SAM World

The news regarding the Israeli army’s decision to decommission Patriot anti-aircraft systems has garnered significant attention online and sparked speculation about the potential purchase of these systems by European countries for subsequent transfer to Ukraine.

The plans for the disposal of these systems by the government and the Israeli Defense Ministry remain unclear. The final unit is scheduled to be transferred to storage bases within the next two months.

Nevertheless, the likelihood of several medium-range combat-ready fire units being decommissioned simultaneously has not escaped our editorial team’s notice. We have undertaken a review to provide you with information on the number of systems available in the country and all that is currently known about them.

Anti-aircraft systems in service with Israel

To tally the Israeli air defense systems, we turn to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) register, which tracks the global arms market and exports. According to SIPRI’s database, between 1990 and 2013, Israel acquired a total of 7 fire units from the United States and Germany, with an undisclosed number of launchers.

Under the initial export agreement with the United States valued at $117 million (approximately $291 million in 2024 terms), Israel procured its first 2 MIM-104 Patriot PAC-2 batteries. Subsequently, in 1993, the Israeli government purchased another similar battery under a $105 million contract.

Concurrently, in 2002, amid escalating tensions in the Middle East, Germany generously transferred two of its Patriot PAC-2 batteries to Israel. Similarly, in 2013, the country acquired two more PAC-2 batteries through a similar arrangement.

Данні реєстру SIPRI про експорт систем MIM-104 Patriot до Ізраїлю.

In addition to the aforementioned agreements, Israel received a total of 153 MIM-104D (PAC-2) anti-aircraft missiles and 128 older German MIM-104A missiles as part of these transactions. There may have been other instances of anti-aircraft missile transfers for these systems that are not documented in the registry.

In summary, it appears that the Israeli Air Force operated up to 7 Patriot PAC-2 batteries throughout the operational period. While the specifics of the American systems remain classified, we can provide more detailed information about the composition of the German batteries. Typically, German batteries consist of 8 launchers.

Furthermore, it’s worth noting that elements of the American complexes are configured in a semi-trailer version, including the M901 launchers mounted on M983 HEMTT tractors. Conversely, German self-propelled systems are installed on MAN 8×8 truck chassis.

A critical component of an anti-aircraft system in this class is its radar, which is responsible for detecting objects in the airspace.

The batteries supplied to Israel are equipped with the first-generation AN/MPQ-53 radar station. This radar is a passive electronically scanned array (PESA) multipurpose radar operating in the G- or H-bands.

The radar’s maximum detection range for air targets is 180 km. Apart from detection, its functions include target search and tracking, electronic jamming, and, significantly, the guidance of MIM-104A/B/C/E missiles.

The active usage of the AN/MPQ-53 radar is evidenced by numerous photographs depicting the positions of Israeli Patriot SAM batteries.

Пускова установка та радар комплексу Patriot PAC-2 в Хайфі, Ізраїль, 29 серпня 2013 року. Фото: Baz Ratner

Modernization and Yahalom project

In 2008, the U.S. government approved Israel’s request to upgrade its Patriot air defense systems. The timeline of this project is not well-documented, but between 2010 and 2011, there were reports [1, 2] circulating online about the modernization process and the introduction of upgraded systems into service.

From publicly available information, we see that Raytheon was responsible for the modernization of the Israeli systems. This process involved installing new software and upgrading the hardware of the radar.

It’s been suggested that the modernized Patriot/Yahalom systems gained the capability to utilize next-generation anti-aircraft missiles such as the PAC-3, which are designed to reliably intercept ballistic targets. However, this information remains unconfirmed, and there are no photographs depicting Israeli systems equipped with these missiles.

It’s plausible that details of the project provided by insiders from non-military sectors were misinterpreted by journalists. It’s conceivable that Israeli systems have indeed obtained advanced ballistic interception capabilities through software updates to the radar and the integration of more advanced GEM-T missiles from the PAC-2 family.

The GEM-T (also referred to as GEM+ or MIM-104E) represents an advancement of the GEM missile (MIM-104D). It features a new digital proximity fuze and homing system, along with an enhanced noise oscillator that enables the targeting of low radar cross-section targets.

This new missile is capable of intercepting medium-range ballistic missiles within a maximum radius of 1000 km and at flight speeds of up to 3000 m/s.

Production of the GEM-T missile commenced in late 2002, coinciding chronologically with the period of the Yahalom project.

Пускова установка Patriot з 8 контейнерами ракет PAC-3 (зліва) та ще одна з 4 контейнерами ракет PAC-2 (GEM)

It’s noteworthy to mention information regarding the integration of an additional opto-electronic system into modernized anti-aircraft systems for visual detection of objects in the airspace.

Infrared cameras were intended to offer all-weather detection capabilities for aircraft, cruise missiles, and drones over long distances, providing their coordinates to the battery control post.

“The cameras will be integrated to improve overall target detection capabilities. They will be added as part of the general Patriot modernization project, which will provide new opportunities and provide support for existing ones,” said Captain Matan Shalom, head of the Patriot division in the Aerial Defense Formation Headquarters.

In August 2008, there was mention of the use of this “experimental” system. The Israel Air Defense Command (IAF) assessed the system under the codename “Sniper,” which had recently been deployed as part of one of the Patriot batteries.

The report highlighted that the Sniper system contributed additional response time for system operators and provided supplementary confirmation of airborne objects, proving particularly valuable in hybrid warfare scenarios.

Combat use

The first Patriot anti-aircraft missile systems were deployed in Israel during the Gulf War to intercept Iraqi R-17 Elbrus ballistic missiles and their locally-modified version, Al-Hussein.

Over the course of two months between January and February 1991, Iraq launched 46 ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia and 42 at Israel.

During one of the missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, a Patriot PAC-2 system experienced a malfunction in its radar software, resulting in numerous casualties among US military personnel near Dhahran.

An investigation into the incident revealed that the problem occurred every 100 hours of uninterrupted battery operation due to the accumulation of system clock errors, resulting in discrepancies of 0.3 seconds, ultimately leading to inaccurate calculations. This issue was subsequently addressed and resolved through updates.

After the end of the war, a number of discussions began on the effectiveness of Patriot systems. One topic of debate centered around the inability of the missiles at that time to intercept ballistic targets effectively. This argument stemmed from instances where the debris from intercepted missiles and the inadequately precise detonation often only struck the missile body, rather than destroying its warhead. Consequently, the warhead would still descend near the intended target, posing a risk of damage.

Пуски ракет ЗРК Patriot для перехоплення іракських балістичних ракет, Тель-Авів, Ізраїль, 11 лютого 1991 року. Фото: Alpert Nathan

The Patriot systems were used by the 139th Battalion Yahalom of the Israeli Air Force. In September 2014, they successfully intercepted a Su-24M bomber belonging to the Syrian Air Force near the Golan Heights.

Since then, on various occasions, approximately ten drones have been intercepted using these systems after penetrating the country’s airspace from Syria.

Another notable achievement of the Israeli air defense occurred on July 24, 2018. On that occasion, two Patriot PAC-2 missiles were employed to shoot down a Syrian Su-22 bomber that had ventured 2 km into Israeli airspace.

The end of the Israeli Patriots?

The era of Patriot systems in the Israel Air Defense Force is drawing to a close as they are gradually being replaced by more modern domestically produced systems such as David’s Sling and Iron Dome. These newer systems are poised to provide reliable missile defense for the country in a volatile region.

Nevertheless, the Patriot PAC-2 complexes that have been transferred for storage still retain their value. They remain a formidable asset even on the modern battlefield, where advanced fighters and tactical missile systems are prevalent.

Ukraine has already demonstrated successful usage of two German batteries, which are essentially replicas of similar air defense systems deployed by the Israeli Defense Forces. These systems have effectively intercepted Russian fighters, helicopters, cruise missiles, and even ballistic missiles.

Пускова установка українського комплексу Patriot PAC-2, червень 2023 року. Фото: АрміяInform

It’s estimated that at least 4 decommissioned Israeli batteries remain in combat-ready condition. These systems are urgently required by the Defense Forces to provide air cover for ground forces on the front lines, particularly against the threat of large-scale Russian air bombardment.

Furthermore, these systems are uniquely equipped to offer adequate missile defense for Ukrainian tactical aviation airfields, especially as the Air Force prepares to deploy its first squadron of F-16 fighters.

In response to this need, Israeli citizens have initiated a petition, collecting signatures and appealing to the current Minister of Defense, Yoav Gallant, urging him to consider the transfer of these anti-aircraft systems to Ukraine.

Air Defense Israel Israeli Air Force Middle East SAM World