The Strike On Saudi Oil Facilities Was Unprecedented And It Underscores Far Greater Issues

Air defense systems aren't magic and many currently have serious limitations when it comes to spotting and engaging drones and cruise missiles. 

US Government

I don't know how better to say it—there was some really shoddy and downright reckless reporting over the weekend on the Saudi oil infrastructure attacks. After catching our readers up with what is going on regarding this developing situation in a post that you need to read here for proper background, I wanted to take the time to talk about some of the inaccurate analysis being cast around in the media and about some of the larger and very pressing issues surrounding the attacks and its aftermath.

Away from the office this weekend, I took to Twitter to make a few key points about what I was seeing regarding the strikes. I want to solidify those more completely here. First off, no, the direction of impacts seen in satellite photos is not any sort of conclusive evidence as to where these weapons originated from. I saw this parroted all over the place, from cable and network news to blogs over the weekend. We are talking about what are clearly extremely precise weapons here that are capable of being effectively employed at long standoff ranges. 

US Government handout
US Government handout
US Government handout

The post-strike satellite images provided by the U.S. Government clearly show just how precise the weapons used were, punching near-identical placed holes into major components of Saudi Arabia's oil apparatus. The idea that these same weapons, which have to use some form of autopilot to accurately fly to their target area over long distances, can't simply hit an offset waypoint away from the target before making their final attack run is laughable. In other words, this is not unguided artillery here, it can maneuver dynamically to approach a target from a direction that its targeters find most advantageous—either for kinetic effects, survivability, or deniability reasons.

With that in mind, the attacks could have come from any vector-based on impact information alone—Iraq, Yemen, Iran, or even a boat in the Persian Gulf. The weapons could even have been launched from within a nearby friendly country by clandestine forces, although that is quite unlikely. And who is to say they all came from just one locale? Multiple types of weapons—cruise missiles, suicide drones, or even larger low observable drones capable of dropping their own weapons—could have been launched from completely different locations in a coordinated, multi-layer assault. This would have been particularly useful for ensuring some of the weapons make it to their targets and for overwhelming or confusing Saudi air defenses—that is if they are detected and successfully tracked at all.

Regardless of their origin, when I first saw the damage, I felt like drones were potentially part of the attack, but likely not the only weapons employed. In fact, it looked a lot like a cruise missile strike with some of those weapons being equipped with shaped charges for penetrating fortified structures and others being equipped with general high explosives warheads for greater effects against unfortified structures. Whoever planned the strike had a very good understanding of the facilities targeted and what their components do, as well as their vulnerabilities and propensity for secondary effects. In other words, it wasn't just showering a target area with explosive-laden drones or even picking some important-looking structures targeting those. The targeting was systemic in nature and high in quality. 

That brings us to my next point, one you probably also thought to yourself when this happened—this was an unprecedented attack. Welcome to the murky world of unmanned warfare that I have been warning about for many years. I almost take this issue personally because people use to blow it off or even snicker at it. Now all the predictions I wish were wrong are coming true and at an alarming pace

The Department of Defense was ridiculously asleep at the wheel regarding this threat and is now scrambling to play catchup. Anyone who says differently is straight-up lying. It's well established what non-state actors can already do with relatively low-end unmanned aircraft technology—Houthi rebels alone have been using suicide drones for two and a half years—just imagine what a peer state will be able to do in the very near future. Instead of a mass of individual suicide drones layered in with other weapons, like cruise missiles, attacking a target simultaneously, imagine a swarm that is fully networked and works cooperatively to best achieve their mission goals, including jamming or killing air defenses in order for the swarm to make it to its final destination. America's adversaries are all too aware of this game-changing potential and the lack of defenses to counter it in any robust manner.

Here's a cold hard reality that most people just don't understand, including many defense sector pundits—air defense systems, no matter how advanced and deeply integrated, aren't magic. They have major limitations, especially considering most primarily rely on ground-based sensors.

This is true for the upper end of the envelope, such as ballistic missile defense, and also for the very low end, such as drones and cruise missile defense. In fact, I wrote a piece all about the 'missile shield' myth, which mirrors the realities of defending against drones and cruise missiles. I suggest you give it a read.

The vast majority of these air defense systems were built to counter higher-end threats, like combat aircraft and ballistic missiles. Low-flying cruise missiles and slow-flying drones with small radar cross-sections remain a very problematic vulnerability to even the best integrated air defense systems on the planet. Short-range air defenses (SHORADs) are currently the most reliable way to effectively deal with these threats, but these systems have a very short reach and are traditionally only used at strategic locations and to protect other high-value target areas. The U.S., and the western world to some degree, has lagged behind pathetically when it comes to fielding SHORAD capabilities and now the Pentagon is scrambling to catch up. Even those systems that do exist were largely designed to shoot down a single target, such as a jet, helicopter, or missile, at a time, not rapidly or even simultaneously engage a swarm of them. You can read all about this issue in this past feature of mine, where I literally predict this exact type of attack. 

The biggest problem with most SHORAD concepts being pushed forward today—from lasers to missile interceptors—is that they still emanate from a mindset in which the threat is limited in volume. In other words, they can engage a few drones or missiles fairly quickly, but a dozen or dozens descending onto the target area suddenly is far beyond their capabilities. This is why electronic warfare—from jamming to microwave directed energy weapons—is so attractive for dealing with this threat. These systems have the potential to drop a whole swarm or large swathes of it in a way that kinetic systems cannot. The other alternative is something like Israel's Iron Dome, which is expensive to acquire and deploy, with each Tamir interceptor costing over $50K per round fired (two usually being fired at each target), while also being restricted to a fairly short range. Other more promising and more mobile systems are in the works, and as I have said repeatedly, the best thing to knock down a drone outside of electronic warfare, is probably another drone. This concept is also finally being explored.

Beyond SHORAD systems, integrated air defense networks, like Saudi Arabia's, would benefit greatly from airborne netted sensors that are specifically designed to detect low and/or slow-flying targets with small radar cross-sections. The Army's long-troubled JLENS blimp is just one concept that exists, although it is attractive because it is very persistent. Smaller aerostats with radars that can cover a smaller area, but still provide ample early warning of approaching drones and cruise missiles, could be another, more scalable option for high-value locales. 

High-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) unmanned aircraft can also lug radars aloft that are especially adept at looking-down and detecting these types of targets. In fact, the Block 40 RQ-4B Global Hawk's Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program (MP-RTIP) gives that aircraft a very sensitive Active Electronically Scanned Array radar that is capable of rapidly scanning huge volumes of airspace for hard to detect threats as well as taking synthetic aperture radar images and tracking moving vehicles on the ground. This latent air-to-air capability has not been developed by the USAF, but it probably should be in light of recent events. A country like Saudi Arabia may find either of these concepts to be a worthy investment going forward, especially considering how much money is being lost in oil production after this strike. There is no doubt about it, Global Hawk isn't cheap to keep overhead, but considering they can stay up there for nearly a day and a half at a time and they can cover a huge area from their perch at 60,000 feet, they are better adapted to the role than traditional aircraft.  

Northrop Grumman

Block 40 Global Hawk with MR-RTIP.

The big takeaway is that this is just the beginning. You are getting a glimpse at the future of warfare in these satellite photos and quite honestly, considering how omnipresent this threat has become, we are lucky a couple busted up oil production facilities were the only result of such an eye-opening attack. 

The cold hard truth is that counter-unmanned aircraft and counter-cruise missile capabilities are not 'sexy' to develop, field, and maintain operationally, but it will increasingly become absolutely essential to divert more funds in this direction. And no, I am not talking about some guys running around with wonky, sci-fi looking electronic warfare rifles. I am saying dense and layered counter-UAS capabilities will be required to even counter domestic threats in the years to come, especially against VIPs and critical infrastructure. 

We live in an age where everyone has access to high-resolution satellite imagery of nearly any point on the globe. This is something that was unthinkable even following the end of the Cold War. A single individual now has the capabilities that entire government intelligence agencies were built to produce, all on their smartphone or laptop computer. And it's entirely free! 

GPS is even more of a revolutionary capability. It's incredible pinpoint accuracy really has become more concerning since the hobby drone industry exploded and now components to control drones via GPS are somewhat off-the-shelf in nature and are supplied from manufacturers around the globe. With these two things combined, a bad actor has both the targeting intelligence and the precision targeting capabilities available for a minuscule fraction of what they cost in the past and without any major barriers of entry. 

These types of strikes don't have to originate beyond a border, they can even originate from anywhere, including right here in the U.S. against U.S. targets. We must change our way of thinking when it comes to precision munitions and drones, and especially the imaginary line that still seems to separate them. In addition, confronting this issue just won't be about fielding near and very costly military gear, it will also be about implementing, regulations, working with the global community, and a lot of intelligence gathering. The best and cheapest way to stop any attack is to do so before they start. 

As far as Iran's involvement in this, that seems pretty damn clear, at least on some level, and I wouldn't be surprised if they launched some or all of these weapons themselves. The thing is that they have created a unique situation in which they have literally bought deniability via furnishing a rebel force with 'indigenous' weapons that are distinct, but similar to their own. Yet there is nothing to say Iran couldn't use those same "off-brand" weapons themselves. In fact, doing so makes total sense in this case as their Houthi partners were ready and willing to accept responsibility. In the end, the effects are what really matters, not who owns the operation publicly. When it comes to responding to such an act, that certainly isn't the case. 

I have to stress that I am not saying they definitely originated from Iranian territory or vessels, although I think that is very possible, but that this unique situation Iran has built for itself must be taken into account going forward. They literally constructed an elaborate deniability mechanism for themselves.

I hope this event is a wakeup call for the powers that be that counter-UAS and cruise missile defense gets more investment, especially in an era of murky hybrid warfare. The startling reality is that this attack could have come by ballistic missile—weapons that cost hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars—and it would have had a far lesser chance of succeeding. Not only that, the perpetrator would have been known. Yet some drones and/or low-end cruise missiles can accomplish the same effects more reliably and with the added feature of deniability. This alarming strategic truth is not reflected in the incredible sums of money being spent on integrated air defenses, and especially by the Kingdom and the United States. 

Hopefully, we won't need another hugely successful attack on a prized target located deep in the heart of highly defended airspace before key decision-makers wake up to nature of what has been and continues to be a totally predictable threat. 

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com