The devastating attack on Saudi oil plants confirms the worst fears about low-tech drones in the wrong hands

  • Saudi oil facilities were severely damaged over the weekend in what appears to have been a drone and cruise missile strike Saturday.
  • The facilities were hit by threats that most countries lack the ability to effectively counter.
  • “The whole point of [unmanned aerial vehicles] and cruise missiles is that they can fly low where they are hard to see and on circuitous routes that evade defenses,” one expert told Insider, while another said that the latest attacks are a “wake-up call.”
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Saudi oil facilities were severely damaged on Saturday in what appears to have been a drone and cruise missile strike, increasingly prolific threats the country was largely powerless to stop.

The strike, which some US officials have said involved a dozen cruise missiles and more than 20 drones, on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil processing plant and Khurais oil field shut down half of the country’s oil processing, affecting roughly 5 percent of global oil production.

The Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen publicly claimed responsibility for the devastating attack, but the US has pinned blame on Iran but hasn’t released evidence as of Monday to support that claim. Saudi Arabia has identified the weapons used in the attack as Iranian systems, but the kingdom has yet to directly blame Iran for the attacks.

Regardless of which country or group is responsible for the strikes, the nature of the attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities should be a “wake-up call,” experts told Insider on Monday. Global energy security came under fire from threats that corporations and even countries are hardly prepared to counter.

Given that the targets were civilian petroleum facilities, it is unclear what defenses were present, if there were any at all.

But even if there were, “the whole point of [unmanned aerial vehicles] and cruise missiles is that they can fly low where they are hard to see and on circuitous routes that evade defenses,” Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute, explained.

With interceptor systems, like the American-made Patriot batteries that Saudi Arabia uses to defend itself from ballistic missile threats, ground-based radars have coverage gaps through which attacking planes and cruise missiles can fly, Joshua Pollack, a leading nuclear weapons and missile expert, told Insider.

“They won’t be detected until they come close enough to the radar to cross its horizon, by which time it’s probably too late do to much,” he added.

Drones, like cruise missile technology, are becoming increasingly prolific. Ranging from simple to sophisticated, they come in all shapes and sizes; ISIS fighters have rigged bombs onto the kind of small drones used by hobbyists.

Drones allow less powerful forces, such as Iranian proxies who have used drones in a number of regional attacks, to effectively conduct damaging strikes that they might not otherwise be capable of carrying out – and for a relatively low cost.

“If anything,” Arthur Holland Michel, founder and co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, told Insider, “this attack confirms some of the worst fears among militaries and law enforcement as to just how much damage one can do” with this kind of technology,

“Traditional air-defense systems are not up to the task of defending against low, slow, small drones because they simply were not designed for that,” he explained.

A new electronic weapon deployed on the USS Boxer reportedly brought down an Iranian drone in July. But even systems specifically designed for this task, such as jammers or laser weapons, sometimes struggle to get the job done for one reason or another. “The challenge of countering these types of small, low-level drones is one that has yet to be surmounted,” Michel said.

That is especially true in cases where multiple drones are used to conduct an attack or in places like Saudi Arabia where defenses have to protect a vast amount of territory. Complete coverage is simply not possible.

Michel explained that there have been many wake up calls over the years when it comes to the threats posed by drones, such as the use of drones by the Islamic State to target coalition forces, the assassination attempt against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, or the Gatwick Airport incident in December 2018.

In recent months, hostile actors in the Middle East have demonstrated the ability to target critical areas of geopolitical and economic importance with low-cost systems that offer a certain degree of plausible deniability.

Not only have their been apparent drone and missile attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure, but there have also been suspected limpet mine attacks – another low-tech threat with limited countermeasures – on multiple commercial shipping vessels operating near the Strait of Hormuz, a shipping lane of great importance to the global oil trade.

These attacks have shown a spotlight on serious vulnerabilities, clear holes in relevant defense systems meant to protect key areas of strategic significance.