Drones, cyberattacks, and the grey area in the Gulf.
Drone strikes against Saudi oil fields on September 14th cut production in the Kingdom roughly in half. The Saudi Aramco facilities at the Abqaiq processing center and the Khurais oil field were both hit, as the Telegraph summarizes. The strikes were initially attributed to Houthi rebels in Yemen who have for some time been engaged with Saudi forces operating in Yemen’s complicated civil war, a conflict with regional implications. The Houthis themselves claimed responsibility for strike, saying they launched ten drones at Saudi targets.
Saudi Arabia, the UK, and the US have blamed Iran for the attacks. Minimally, the Houthis are Iranian clients who are generally regarded as working on behalf of Iran in the ongoing conflict among Gulf rivals. And the Houthi story doesn’t seem entirely consistent with evidence collected on the ground and during the strikes themselves. Imagery released by the US Government suggests that at least nineteen drones were launched, seventeen of which hit their targets. The US said that at least twenty drones were launched, along with an additional, unspecified number of cruise missiles. Saudi authorities released photographs of debris at the site of the strikes that’s consistent with Iranian Quds cruise missiles, and sources within the US Government say there’s evidence that the cruise missiles were launched from Iran. Iran has denied any involvement in the strikes; Tehran has also said that in any case the Houthi were entirely justified in carrying them out.
Saudi Aramco is working quickly to restore production, but the strikes represent a significant escalation of conflict in the Gulf. The US so far has not taken kinetic military action against Iran, but cyber conflict between the two nations has continued to build since Iran’s destruction of a US Global Hawk surveillance drone on June 20th, and subsequent US retaliation with disabling cyberattacks. The strikes against the oil facilities has, however, led the US to respond by deploying an Army Patriot missile battery to Saudi Arabia. Two other Patriot batteries and one Terminal High Altitude Area Defense fire unit have been placed on standby for deployment.
Novel anti-drone systems.
Saudi air defenses deployed around the oil fields showed the classic air defense organization of mass and mix: the Abqaiq facility was defended by US-made Patriot missiles, Swiss-made 35mm Oerlikon automatic cannons with Skyguard radars, and versions of French-made Croatale missiles. These are together capable of engaging targets from low to high altitudes. Mass and mix (with mobility, which in this case doesn't apply to a fixed target like an oil field) are the basic principles of air defense. Yet none of these systems apparently engaged the drones and cruise missiles. Why they failed to do so remains unclear. In some respects, however, low altitude defense against drone swarms and low-altitude cruise missiles is a tougher task than defense against more conventional airborne threats. The difficulty lies in detecting small targets against a cluttered radar background, and other approaches to detection, including persistent overheard imagery, don't currently provide continuous regional coverage.
The weapons themselves may also be imperfectly adapted to killing drones and low-flying cruise missiles. The US is working on a range of energy weapons that can destroy or neutralize such targets. Some of those systems, notably the Marine Air Defense Integrated System (MADIS), have been used in combat with some success: a MADIS system deployed aboard USS Boxer successfully took down an Iranian drone earlier this summer. Work is also in progress on smaller kinetic weapons that might prove more effective against drone swarms than more conventional missile and gun systems. Central to such new approaches to air defense is the modelling and close study of drone technologies, including commercial drone technologies, that could be used to exploit their vulnerabilities in ways that enabled drones to be jammed, intercepted, or destroyed. The Air Force is working on a prototype of "PHASER," a microwave system designed to take down swarms. The Raytheon-developed system is entering a year-long operational assessment in an undisclosed overseas area of operations. The attacks against the Saudi oil facilities have lent urgency to the evaluation. PHASER and related systems like the Air Force's THOR are attractive options for defense against swarms in that they're area weapons, able to stop a large number of targets at once.