The Shocking Attack of Saudi Oil Fields by Killer Drones
Matthew Greenwood posted on September 30, 2019 |
Bold Houthi rebel attack shows how drone-based asymmetrical warfare threatens the Middle East.

One of the world’s most important oil refining facilities was recently attacked by drones. This is the latest—and boldest—incident in what has become a drone war in the Middle East.

Details are somewhat sketchy. Saudi Arabia claims that the Aramco oil processing facility at Abqaiq was hit by 18 drones and that the Khurais oil field facility was targeted by four cruise missiles. Houthi rebels, who are engaged in a bitter war with Saudi-led forces in Yemen, have claimed responsibility—but the U.S. and Saudi Arabia claim that Iran was behind the attack. Iran supports the Houthis.

Map of the drone attacks.
Map of the drone attacks.

How Did the Houthis Do It?

If Houthi spokesperson Yahya Sare’e is to be believed, the drones snuck past some pretty sophisticated Saudi defenses along the way to their targets.

The Houthis have used drones and missiles before—but never to this level of sophistication. Launching an attack with the range, precision, firepower and ability to avoid not only air defenses but also obstacles like power lines and communications towers has been beyond their capabilities in the past.

The Quds-1, which may have been used in the attacks.
The Quds-1, which may have been used in the attacks.

The Houthis likely deployed their Quds-1 cruise missile, based on the Iranian Soumar, which is itself reverse-engineered from the Soviet Kh-55 nuclear missile but uses a conventional explosive warhead. Houthi forces used a Quds-1 in an attack on a Saudi airport earlier this year.

The Iranian Soumar missile.
The Iranian Soumar missile.

The Quds-1 has significant differences from the Soumar: a smaller turbojet engine, a narrower fuselage, fixed wings rather than the Soumar’s folding ones, and a simpler booster design. This would mean that it has smaller payload and range than its Iranian cousin.

Iranian Ya-Ali missile (in red).
Iranian Ya-Ali missile (in red).

Saudi Arabia claims that the four cruise missiles were Iranian Ya-Alis, but this is disputed by independent sources who claim the debris points toward the Quds-1. The Ya-Ali has a range of 435 miles, while the Quds-1 can reach 838 miles. And the Saudis showed debris from drones that seemed similar to Iranian drones—but the comparison was inconclusive.

Houthi Qasef-1 drone.
Houthi Qasef-1 drone.

Regarding the drones used in the attack, the Houthis could have used their Qasef-1, which is based on Iran’s Ababil-2 drone but uses a Chinese engine. It is a loitering munition drone—meaning that it flies to a preprogrammed GPS position (often taken from open-source information) where it can fly around in wait until it conducts a kamikaze-style attack on a target. The Qasef-1 has a range of 155 miles and can carry a 66-pound payload.

Iran has denied any involvement in the attack. But if there is one Saudi adversary that has the drone and missile technology needed to conduct this type of attack, it’s Iran—which has become adept at taking down technologically sophisticated opponents. And it seems to have no qualms about sharing its tech with the Houthis.

Asymmetrical Warfare

This attack showcases just how destabilizing drone warfare can be.

Weapons that can cost mere thousands to produce are matched up against defense systems that cost millions, even billions—and manage to get past them. For example, Israel uses Patriot missiles that cost $3 to $4 million each to shoot down quadriceptor drones that can cost $1,000. There’s been evidence that Syrian rebels are making drones out of plywood and plastic sheeting, with polystyrene wings. And the Houthis are known to be 3D printing parts for Iran-designed drones that are fitted with Iranian electronics at the last minute.

Danger of “kamikaze drones” used on oil facilities.

Houthi forces have used armed drones, as well as missiles, to attack key Saudi infrastructure over the last year and a half. In response, Saudi Arabia, which already deploys Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries and Hawk missile systems, has been buying up more defense systems—at a pace that the industry can’t keep up with since very few manufacturers make them. The systems are also expensive to purchase and to install, using technologies such as GPS jammers, microphones, radars, electronic warfare and rapid-response countermeasures—all to knock out devices that, in some cases, are built with materials you can purchase at a Walmart.

“This is the advent of 21st-century drone warfare in the Middle East,” said Bilal Y Saab, director at the Middle East Institute and a former Pentagon adviser. “In this race, the advantage is to the adversary, because our responses are not efficient.”

The Houthis aren’t the only ones deploying drones. Iran, Israel and Turkey build their own systems, while Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iraq import them. And the Middle East seems to be particularly prone to such attacks because the region has centralized economic assets—such as the Abqaiq facility—that are as critical as they are poorly defended. Saudi Arabia on its own is a target-rich environment with oil refineries, airports, military bases and desalination plants.

In the Abquaiq attack, drones that may have cost $15,000 or less caused millions of dollars in physical damage—and hamstrung the Saudi global oil export machine to the tune of 5.7 million barrels of oil a day. That’s 5 percent of the global crude supply! And you likely saw the effect at the gas pump.

Analysts believe the situation is going to get worse before a solution is found. “They [the militias] are only just scratching the surface of what drones can do,” said Saab, anticipating the emergence of drones with improved flight path planning and radar signal masking—and even drone swarms. “Expect more of those,” he said. “This is the tip of the iceberg.”

Read more about the military technology used in Middle Eastern conflicts at Iran's Home-Grown Missile System Downs U.S. Military's Most Advanced Drone.

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