Royal Saudi Air Defense Forces guard against missile, drone threats


Saudi Arabia's well-resourced air defense forces rely on defense infrastructure and key partnerships to guard against regional security risks, many stemming from Iran.

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A Patriot missile battery is seen near Prince Sultan air base at al-Kharj on February 20, 2020. [Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP]
A Patriot missile battery is seen near Prince Sultan air base at al-Kharj on February 20, 2020. [Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP]

The Royal Saudi Air Defense Forces (RSADF) is continuing to develop its missile capabilities to protect the nation's territory and enhance regional integrated air defense co-operation.

The RSADF, a separate branch of the Saudi military, defends the kingdom and its allies from diverse threats from the skies.

Tasked with securing the skies of Saudi Arabia, the RSADF has intercepted hundreds of drones, missiles and cruise missiles in real-time combat, according to the Middle East Institute (MEI).

The MEI has called the RSADF "probably the single most effective branch of any Arab military service."

A military drone is displayed at Saudi Arabia’s first World Defense Show, north of the capital Riyadh, on March 8, 2022. [Fayez Nureldine/AFP]
A military drone is displayed at Saudi Arabia’s first World Defense Show, north of the capital Riyadh, on March 8, 2022. [Fayez Nureldine/AFP]

Saudi Arabia first began pursuing missile defense capabilities during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, according to the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance (MDAA), when Iran and Iraq fired ballistic missiles at each other and at noncombatant nations in the Gulf, including the kingdom.

It was the evolving threat from the skies that spurred the formation of the RSADF as a separate fourth military branch responsible for territorial air defense, according to, in addition to the army, naval and air forces.

Concerned about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their methods of delivery, the kingdom separated air defense units from the army to create the RSADF in 1984.

Headquartered in Riyadh, RSADF is linked to Saudi Arabia's "Peace Shield," an integrated radar, defense and communications system connected to all of Saudi Arabia's military services.

Today, Saudi Arabia's missile defense infrastructure is designed to guard against threats from its primary adversary, Iran, according to the MDAA.

Saudi Arabia has faced years of rocket threats from Yemen's Houthis, who have been supplied with Iranian equipment and technology.

The kingdom's missile defense resources include the Patriot/PAC-3 -- an advanced, US-manufactured surface-to-air missile defense system, capable of defeating both high performance aircraft and tactical ballistic missiles.

They also include the Shahine and MIM-23 Hawk surface-to-air missile systems, and the Oerlikon Skyguard.

The Oerlikon Skyguard, an anti-aircraft gun with a twin-cannon system, is supported by AN/FPS-117 and AN/TPS-43 long-range air defense radar systems, the MDAA reports.

US, GCC partner to counter regional threats

Such capabilities enable Saudi Arabia to act as a reliable partner for regional missile defense.

"By enhancing its security architecture through missile defense, Saudi Arabia seeks to consolidate its place as a regional leader, protect its homeland, and safeguard its regional allies to further co-operation in the Arabian Gulf," the MDAA noted.

At a 2015 Camp David summit with then-US President Barack Obama, the United States -- a long-term security partner of Saudi Arabia -- renewed its commitment to work with the kingdom and other Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) member states to ensure their safety from external regional threats.

Since then, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman, Bahrain and the United States have all supported the development of an integrated regional missile defence system, including radar, early warning, and surface-to-air missile sites.

"The United States shares with our GCC partners a deep interest in a region that is peaceful and prosperous, and a vital interest in supporting the political independence and territorial integrity, safe from external aggression, of our GCC partners," the White House said in a statement released after the summit.

The nations reaffirmed their commitment during the latest round of US-Gulf Cooperation Council Working Groups on Integrated Air and Missile Defense and Maritime Security held in Riyadh in February 2023.

"Participants acknowledged mutual interest in enhancing regional stability by fostering cooperative security and eliminating existing gaps exploited by state and non-state actors. They also aim to incorporate bilateral activities, operations, and investments into a regional, multilateral approach," the Pentagon said in a statement.

"By working together to achieve these two objectives, GCC and member states will build a more networked architecture for enhanced collective defense in the Gulf."

New national anti-drone system

Saudi Arabia is also working to combat threats from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones.

In 2020, Defense News reported that Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI) was working on a new national counter-drone system to protect critical infrastructure and domestic military bases.

The effort came after the September 14, 2019, drone attack on Saudi Arabia's Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities, which was forensically linked by scene debris to Iran.

The anti-drone system would include both "soft kill" and "hard kill" options to combat diverse threats and could be deployed as a stationary or mobile platform.

The system will have the ability to "counter all types of drones from very small ones... up to the professional militarized threats," SAMI CEO Andreas Schwer told Defense News in 2020. "Moreover, the system includes radars, command-and-control stations, and advanced networking capability."

As weaponized drones of various types are used more commonly in attacks across the region, multilateral military training has expanded to address counter-UAV tactics.

In a first-of-its-kind joint military exercise in March, Saudi Arabia and the United States completed a joint counter-drone training at the new Red Sands Integrated Experimentation Center in Riyadh.

The training focused on small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Participants conducted live-fire exercises, studied complex threats and identified weaknesses in other areas to counter drone activities.

The exercises at Red Sands demonstrate US commitment to Saudi Arabia in a way that extends beyond traditional security assistance like foreign military sales, Melissa Horvath, a non-resident senior fellow at MEI, told Al-Arabiya.

In an essay for MEI last October, Horvath wrote: "Long-term co-operative projects like the Red Sands Integrated Experimentation Center strengthen relationships, counter great power influence, and help our partners modernize and integrate their systems to defend against the most challenging regional threats."

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May Allah give success to those concerned and officials of these systems to defend Muslims' lands everywhere!