Drones and Mideast Energy Security
The dramatic aerial attack on Saudi Arabia’s core oil production facilities has upended prior conceptions of energy security and the geopolitical realities of the Middle East. In one fell swoop, the attack exposed as fallacy the notion that the wealth of the Mideast Gulf states can be secured by a combination of big military expenditures and effective regional and global alliances. Neither the multibillion-dollar air defense system purchased by the Saudi government nor its long-standing relationship with the US military saved it from this devastating attack. Moreover, the ease with which the Saudi oil production capability was attacked and crippled, when combined with the fact that such an act could be replicated at will, fundamentally alters the calculus of energy security as well as the joint US-Saudi approach toward confronting and containing Iran. These latest attacks are a complete game changer for the military and diplomatic assumptions that have underpinned the security of the world’s oil supply.
In August, I wrote a World Energy Opinion article entitled “Drones: New Threat to Energy Security” (WEO Aug.27’19). I concluded that, “From an energy security perspective, drones have proven that they pose a meaningful threat to the physical security of facilities once deemed virtually immune to direct attack by nonstate actors … it is no longer a question of if there will be another drone-based attack on oil and gas production and storage facilities, but when.” That moment of truth came much sooner and more dramatically than anyone expected. The attacks on the Abqaiq and Khurais crude oil-processing facilities represent the kind of “worst-case” scenario that energy security professionals have worried about for decades. In terms of military resources expended — mainly some cheap, relatively unsophisticated drones — this was a low-cost operation. But in terms of its impact — severely damaging vital oil infrastructure, disrupting billions of dollars in oil exports and shaking the global oil supply system to its foundations — the operation ranks among the most successful military actions in recent history.
There remains controversy about who is responsible for the attacks. The Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen claim that the operation was solely theirs, while the Saudi Arabian government, backed by the US, contends that Iran was directly involved. The forensic evidence presented by the Saudi government in the aftermath of the attacks, viewed in isolation, supports both conclusions. The Houthi military has stated that the attack involved three variations of drones numbering 10 in total launched from three separate locations inside Yemen in a coordinated strike. The problem with this narrative is that there are at least 25 impact points, 17 at the Abqaiq facility alone, making an attack by 10 drones, some of which were used, according to the Houthi spokesman, as decoys and/or in a reconnaissance mode, problematic.
But the Houthis have provided additional information that appears to sustain their original version of events. According to a Houthi spokesman, the attack on the Saudi oil facilities made use of the Qassef-3 drone, which is most likely a Houthi variation of the Iranian Ababil-3, a long-range reconnaissance and surveillance drone that could also double as a command and control/communications relay platform. The Houthis also claimed to have used the Samad-3 long-range “suicide” drone, which may have been adapted to carry up to four guided missiles, each of which would be capable of striking a discreet target. The Houthis claim to have used such a munition-carrying drone in the attack; whether it was the Samad-3, or a newer, yet-to-be declared model, is unknown at this time.
Forensic evidence produced by the Saudis also show that the Houthis used a jet-powered cruise missile, the Quds-1, as well as a delta-winged drone that resembles the Iranian Saegheh drone, which is armed with four precision-guided air-to-ground missiles. This Saegheh-like drone could be the new drone the Houthis mentioned. An unspecified number of additional drones were used to confuse the Saudi air defenses so that the main attack force could reach its targets. In any event, the Houthi version of events details a complex attack, incorporating a wide range of drone platforms, each capable of performing a discreet mission, including a standoff attack using onboard munitions, and operating from geographically separated launch sites.
If true, the Houthis have advanced their operational capabilities significantly, but not unrealistically so, from their previous operations. Viewed in retrospect, the previous Houthi drone operations could be building-block efforts, helping advance a learning curve about drone operations, command and control, and hostile air defense capabilities. Seen in this light, the strikes on the Abqaiq and Khurais facilities represent a culmination, combining operational experience with technological advances and, perhaps most importantly, political will. While the Houthis may very well be telling the truth that the attack on Saudi Arabia originated solely from Yemeni soil, the fact is the Houthis could not, and would not, have launched such a game-changing attack without closely coordinating with their Iranian mentors.
There is supporting evidence of this linkage. The Houthis were reported to have sent a delegation of senior drone operators to Iran as recently as August, where they received training. The Saudis and US contend that the Houthis also receive operational assistance from Hezbollah; something Hezbollah denies. There is an undeniable nexus between Iran, the Houthis and Hezbollah when it comes to drone operations that combine Iranian technology with Hezbollah’s significant operational experience, providing a steep learning curve for the Houthis to dramatically expand the scope, scale and efficiency of drone operations.
Iran’s Central Role
The most important take away from the aerial attack on Saudi Arabia is the fact that Iran green-lighted such an attack, most likely providing the targeting intelligence, the technology, the operational planning support, and the political decision-making authority. Essentially, Iran controlled every aspect. Without doubt, the attack on the Abqaiq and Khurais facilities represents Iran’s answer to the US-led campaign of “maximum pressure” against Iran, and delivers on the long-held Iranian assertion that if it were not allowed to sell its oil on international markets, neither would its neighbors. This represents an escalation from Iran’s previous tactics, centered around deniable mining attacks and retaliatory tanker seizures. Iran recognized that neither the US nor Saudi Arabia had been sufficiently deterred by its previous actions. By facilitating the Houthi attack on Abqaiq and Khurais, Iran has sent an unmistakable message to the US, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. In short, if Iran is attacked, then the very lifeblood of the regional and global economy — oil production — will likewise be devastated, possibly undermining the Gulf monarchies themselves. The Iranian threat can no longer be seen as simply bluff or bluster.
The question that hangs in the air is how best to respond to the attack on the Abqaiq and Khurais facilities. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has made it clear that any attack on Iran would result in “all-out war.” This would involve far more than a few score Houthi drones, Iran would bring to bear the entire spectrum of weaponry it has developed over the course of the past two decades for the specific purpose of destroying regional oil production capacity as well as military capability, inclusive of US regional forces. The refinery attack is proof positive that the Iranians and their proxies possess military capabilities that the US-Saudi-Gulf state coalition has failed to envision, and it lacks a viable response. The absolute failure of the Saudi air defense system, purchased at the cost of tens of billions of dollars over the past three decades, to detect, let alone interdict, the Houthi aerial attack is a condemnation of the overall approach taken by this coalition in seeking to contain Iran.
The US has promised to come to the assistance of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states by deploying additional Patriot air defense units to the region. The attack on Abqaiq and Khurais, however, is a humiliation for the US technology that the Gulf states have embraced as their salvation from outside aggression. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s light-hearted comment that “air defense systems sometimes fail” cannot erase the reality that the Patriot PAC-3 air defense system turned out to be a total failure, at least in this instance. For Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states that have invested so heavily in US air defense systems, this failure raises the genuine fear that there is no adequate defense against a sustained Iranian attack. That reality in turn seems to render the current US policy of “maximum pressure” against Iran politically unsustainable.