AMMAN - The recent attacks on Saudi Arabia’s crude oil hub at the Abqaiq and Khurais production facilities reveal that even a nation with a sophisticated military and a massive defense budget is still vulnerable to drone strikes.
The United States says satellite images and intelligence information show Iranian weapons were used in the aerial attacks that have shut down half of the kingdom’s oil production. Security experts say this latest incident sparks growing concern over the rapid evolution of technologies expanding drones’ offensive capabilities.
Unidentified U.S. officials have been telling Western media that more than a dozen attacks targeted the installations from a west-northwest direction and not from the southwest as claimed by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen who said they carried out the coordinated assault.
In July, the Houthis, who are fighting a Saudi-led coalition war in Yemen, showed off their Iranian-made weapons long-range cruise missiles, dubbed "Al-Quds", and explosives-laden "Sammad 3" drones that reportedly can hit targets as far as 1,500 kilometers away.
No previous attack, since the Yemen conflict began four years ago, however, has interrupted oil supplies. But the assaults have taken 5.7 million barrels of oil a day off the world’s markets. They have also exposed the vulnerability of the pumping heart of Saudi Arabia's oil industry.
Defense analysts say the attacks have exposed structural problems in the kingdom’s defenses. They say the systems – albeit sophisticated - are designed to defend against traditional-style attacks – and not asymmetrical ones from the air by drones.
Middle East analyst Theodore Karasik at Gulf State Analytics told VOA the incident’s security and military implications are huge.
"The gravity is really off the charts. This is literally the oil industry’s 9/11. The targeting of these two facilities was 100-percent successful in delivery of a swarm of cruise missiles and drones. This is the ultimate scenario for taking out energy infrastructure by use of this type of weaponry. The significance of the event itself and the damage done is unprecedented. We are dealing with a rapid escalation in terms of what the responses and counter responses will be," he said.
Saudi authorities say their initial investigation shows Iranian devices were used in the attacks, but the location origin of the attacks was not clear and they were “working to determine the launch point.” Washington has urged Saudi Arabia to decide what the appropriate response to the attacks should be. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry has called for an international investigation into the incident.
“Maybe the Saudis want to buy some time here before they respond in any kind of way," said analyst Karasik. "It puts the Saudis in a tough spot about what they want to do next. But clearly there has to be a response from the West or else Iran will continue to run roughshod over everybody else. The issue here is that Iran has shown all of its cards when it comes to missiles and drones. So, now in the response, if there is a military response it will target command and control nodes and the oil industry. The thinking here is that any attack on Iran must set back Iran’s military ability 10 to 15 years.”
Jeffrey Price, a security consultant and an aviation management professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver, told VOA the drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia are a “game-changer,” and he sees the drone strike as the “next front of a new war.”
“That’s the challenge. When you have so much territory to protect and protect it all evenly and equally it’s very difficult to defend, particularly with missiles and drones. They move much faster, particularly the missiles can move much faster than the manned aircraft can. Both of them have a much lower radar signature than a standard aircraft would, so it’s really about stepping up all of those defenses to detect these new threats,” he said.
It used to be that only governments had air forces, but drones have democratized violence from the sky,” says another analyst, Bernard Hudson, a fellow on Persian Gulf security issues at Harvard University, quoted in the Washington Post newspaper.
He says the Houthis, with Iran’s help and advice, have perfected the practice to a level no one else has done. Jeffrey Price expects a change in how insurgents invest in weapons.
“What drones have done is really handed everybody the capability of a standoff strike autonomously and anonymously without any sort of accountability. It’s going to be much harder to find out who is operating these," Price said.
Price and others worry the current offensive capability of drones is many times ahead of the defensive capabilities that governments are now trying to develop.