U.S. Destroyer Arrives Off Saudi Arabia Amid Plans To Bolster The Kingdom's Air Defenses

The United States has also called on other nations to contribute to this and other efforts to deter Iranian aggression in the region.

USN

The U.S. Navy has reportedly deployed the Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Nitze to the northern end of the Persian Gulf ostensibly to help shore up Saudi Arabian air defenses in the wake of unprecedented mass cruise missile and suicide drone attacks on sites critical to the country's oil industry. The U.S. military is now in the process of drafting up plans to send additional air and missile defense assets and other forces to Saudi Arabia, as well as the United Arab Emirates, to help shield against any future attacks. Existing Saudi surface-to-air missile systems and anti-aircraft guns, particularly those situated in close proximity to the Abqaiq oil processing facility, were notably ineffective in repelling the attacks. 

Make sure to read our complete analysis on the strikes and the greater issues surrounding them, including the inability of modern air defense systems to deal with drone swarms, by clicking here.

CBS News was first to report the movement of the Nitze on Sept. 20, 2019. Later that same day, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford announced plans for a "moderate" deployment of additional personnel to Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the near future, though they also stressed that no firm decisions had been made about the composition or total size of that force or where it would be positioned within the region. 

This comes a day after Saudi Arabian authorities presented the remains of various missiles and drones that they recovered after the attacks on Abqaiq and the Khurais oil field, as well as other detail about the incidents, which occurred on Sept. 14-15, 2019. Houthi rebels in Yemen have claimed responsibility for the attacks, but Saudi Arabia says that the weapons involved came from Iran and were too short range to have flown to their targets from Yemen. The government in Riyadh has not yet blamed a specific group, though U.S. officials say they have separate evidence, which has not been presented publicly, showing that Iran directly carried out the strikes and that they originated in that country.

Saudi Arabian Ministry of Defense

A map showing Abqaiq and Khurais.  The solid blue and red circles indicate what the Saudis estimate the maximum range cruise missiles and suicide drones to have been, making impossible for them to have flown from Yemen.

Nitze is part of the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group, which has been in the Middle East since May 2019. The USS Abraham Lincoln, its air wing, and escorts rushed to the region ahead of schedule following the U.S. government's announcement that month that intelligence showed the increased potential for attacks on American military personnel and other interests by Iran or its proxies.

Armed with two Mk 41 Vertical Launch System arrays, with 96 launch cells between them, and equipped with the powerful Aegis radar and associated combat system, the Arleigh Burke class represents the most capable air defense system mankind has ever created. Each launch cell can accommodate a variety of weapons, including a single SM-2, SM-6, or SM-3 surface-to-air missiles or four smaller RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrows

Just having the ship in this location, where its radar and other sensors may be able to better detect missile or drone launches, provide early warning, and identify their points of origin, may also simply have a deterrent effect. The destroyer is also armed with Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles in some of those launch cells, which could launch retaliatory strikes on Iran over the attacks in Saudi Arabia, something the U.S. government is now reportedly considering. The ship could also work to quickly destroy the launch sites of any drone or cruise missile it detects going forward, if that information becomes available. It is interesting to remember that USS Nitze was involved in Tomahawk strikes on Houthi-controlled radar sites in Yemen in October 2016 after the Yemeni rebels fired anti-ship cruise missiles at American warships.

If nothing else, the ship adds another layer of defense, and an especially capable one, against any additional attacks in the immediate future. This could be very reassuring to Saudi Arabia, which saw its air defenses situated around Abqaiq proved to be completely ineffective during the incidents last weekend.

Satellite imagery of the oil processing facility has suggested that its point air defenses at the time of the attack may have consisted of a single battery of Shahine surface-to-air missiles and an array of Oerlikon GDF 35mm automatic guns. As of this week, emplacements that had held two other Oerlikon GDF batteries were empty, but it is unclear if this occurred before or after the strikes. At most, there would have been three sets of these guns.

A battery of long-range Patriot surface-to-air missiles was also present to the southwest, having apparently shifted from another position to the northeast of the site. Again, it is unclear exactly when this movement occurred.

Shahine, also known as the R460, is a version of the French-made Crotale that Thales-CSF developed specifically for Saudi Arabia in the late 1970s. The major difference is that Shahine's launch units and its air search radar are mounted on armored, tracked chasses derived from the French AMX-30 main battle tank. Standard Crotale uses unarmored 4x4 wheeled carriers. 

Shahine's launchers also carry six missiles instead of the usual four. As with Crotale, Shahine cues its command-guided missiles with a combintion of radar and electro-optical and infrared cameras to zero in on their targets. This system has been in operational use in Saudi Arabia since 1980.

Government of Saudi Arabia

Components of a Saudi Arabian Shahine surface-to-air missile system, including two launcher vehicles and an air search radar vehicle in the middle.

Starting in 1988, Saudi Arabia also began acquiring Skyguard fire control systems to improve the capabilities of its Oerlikon GDFs, which the country had purchased more than a decade earlier. The complete Skyguard system includes an air search radar, a fire control radar, and an optical tracking system. 

The video below shows Romanian Oerlikon GDF guns in action during an exercise.

Shahine can operate in an entirely automatic mode, while Skyguard can be set up so that the associated guns automatically lock on to the targets that the system detects. The maximum target detection range, under optimal conditions, for both systems, which were intended to look for large aircraft and helicopter-sized threats, is just under 12 and a half miles. This is beyond the maximum effective range of both Shahine's missiles and the Oerlikon GDF's 35mm shells.

The range at which these systems could have detected the smaller cruise missiles and suicide drones that Saudi Arabia has said were involved in the attacks would likely have been much shorter than that and other ground clutter may have helped mask their approach. All told, even if the systems were operating in their most automated modes, Saudi air defenders would have had just minutes—or seconds—to spot and then attempt to engage those threats.

The Patriot battery in the area with its more powerful AN/MPQ-53 radar may have offered more advance warning, but it could still have had trouble separating the small, low-flying, and the case of the drones, slow-flying threats from background ground clutter, especially depending on its exact position in relation to the attacks. Abqaiq, as well as Khurais, are full of complex, metallic, radar-reflecting structures that could make spotting and engaging missiles or drones at very low altitudes potentially challenging from certain angles.

We also have no way of knowing what the alert posture was for the Saudi Arabian forces around Abqaiq and what direction their radars would have been focused on, if they were even switched on at all. There are reports that have indicated that the country's air defense networks, as a whole, have been almost exclusively pointed south toward Yemen, given the threat from Houthi rebels. The Patriot battery near Abqaiq, with its directional phased array radar, now shows signs of having been reoriented to the north in the aftermath of the attacks.

In addition, where ever the point of origin for the attacks turns out to have been, if the cruise missile and suicide drones struck their targets from the northwest, as the Saudis, as well as the Americans, have asserted, this could have been a deliberate choice on the part of the attackers to try to avoid Saudi air defenses. It may also have simply been a way of an attempt to mask where the attacks originated from.

Nitze deployment off the coast is certainly a first step toward increasing the air and missile defense capabilities in the region and, perhaps more importantly, just the ability to better monitor the air space in and around the northern end of the Persian Gulf. The additional American deployments, which Secretary of Defense Esper and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Dunford said they would have more details on next week, will almost certainly include additional Patriot batteries and associated radars, among other assets. 

The United States had already announced plans to deploy Patriots to Saudi Arabia in July 2019. Esper and Dunford also said that the U.S. government would look to fast-track additional military aid to the Saudis, which could prove controversial. Many members of Congress have sought to slow the flow of arms to Saudi Arabia over allegations of war crimes in Yemen and the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey last year.

US Army

US Army troops practice loading a Patriot surface-to-air missile launcher at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates.

In addition, Esper and Dunford called upon other members of the international community to consider contributing to the increased air defenses in Saudi Arabia, as well as the U.S.-backed maritime security effort in and around the strategic Strait of Hormuz, which is also aimed at deterring Iranian aggression. Saudi Arabia itself has previously said it has reached out to South Korea about unspecified air defense assistance. 

"Regardless of where you think it came from, the fact is, the Saudis were attacked by both drones and cruise missiles and are still vulnerable to attack," Esper said. It is important to note that Abqaiq is the world largest oil processing facility and has been responsible for approximately 10 percent of oil production worldwide. This makes the limits of the Saudi's previous defense posture all the more glaring.

It is, of course, worth remembering that no air defense network is perfect, or anywhere close to perfect, something the War Zone covered in great depth as part of our initial analysis of the attacks. No matter what additional air and missile defense assets arrive in Saudi Arabia, there could continue to be potential threats to facilities, such as those in Abqaiq. The previous attacks also highlight the immense burdens placed on defenders to protect against even relatively modest standoff strikes and underscore the rapidly evolving risk calculus for even major military powers when considering risks from missile and saturating drone attacks.

"No single system is going to be able to defend against a threat like that," Dunford said at the press conference late on Sept. 20, 2019. "A layered system of defensive capabilities would mitigate the risk."

It's also worth noting, that while The Kingdom is a U.S. ally and a strategic concern due to its oil production, it is also its biggest foreign customer of American air defense systems. Just recently, the Saudis splurged on what would be an unprecedented upgrade to their air defense ecosystem worth tens of billions of dollars—huge business for the defense industry in the United States. But those upgrades are focused more on countering ballistic missiles and traditional threats, not swarming drones or hordes of low-flying, relatively crude cruise missiles. The Pentagon's reactionary move to backstop the existing Saudi air defense network could also be seen in part as a move to stand behind the weapon systems the Saudis are buying or have already bought, and especially considering the Trump administration's close ties to the Saudi royal court. 

The Houthis, for their part, have claimed that they will stop firing missiles and suicide drones into Saudi Arabia entirely and will continue with that moratorium if the Saudis return the gesture and cease strikes on them. The Yemeni rebels have proposed such ceasefires in the past, without meaningful results in either direction, and it is unclear if this offer is genuine or is officials in Riyadh accept it in an effort to deescalate tensions.

Iran continues to deny any involvement in the latest attacks on Saudi Arabia and also says it will not sit down to talks with the United States unless the U.S. government eases sanctions. This looks unlikely to occur given that U.S. President Donald Trump announced new sanctions on Iran's central bank on Sept. 20, 2019. Iran has also threatened to retaliate if the U.S. military launches any strikes against its territory. 

"We have many other military options available, should they be necessary," Esper said at the press conference. "We urge the Iranian leadership to cease their destructive and destabilizing activities and to move forward on a peaceful diplomatic path."

There's no indication that the Iranians feel inclined to change course yet, but whether that leads to more direct action from the United States or its partners remains to be seen. In the meantime, the U.S. government seems focused on bolstering Saudi Arabia's defenses against any new attacks with assets such as the Nitze

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com