Attacks on Saudi Oil Plants Reveal Weaknesses in US-Made Defenses

In this photo opportunity during a trip organized by Saudi information ministry, a man watches the damaged in the Aramco's Khurais oil field, Saudi Arabia, Friday, Sept. 20, 2019, after it was hit during Sept. 14 attack. Saudi officials brought journalists Friday to see the damage done in an attack the U.S. alleges Iran carried out. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
In this photo opportunity during a trip organized by Saudi information ministry, a man watches the damaged in the Aramco's Khurais oil field, Saudi Arabia, Friday, Sept. 20, 2019, after it was hit during Sept. 14 attack. Saudi officials brought journalists Friday to see the damage done in an attack the U.S. alleges Iran carried out. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Ground-hugging swarms of drones and cruise missiles that decimated Saudi oil production facilities this month did billions’ worth of damage and defeated U.S.-made air-defense systems, including Raytheon's Patriots. The attacks raise concerns, analysts say, about the efficacy of such defense systems against the threat.

The accurate Sept. 14 strikes on the huge Abqaiq oil production facility and the nearby Al Khurais oilfield, allegedly carried out by Iran or its proxies, were a "humiliating failure for Saudi Arabia's air-defense system" of Hawk and Patriot batteries bought from the U.S., said Michael Knights, a Washington Institute analyst.

The attacks also appeared to expose shortcomings in the way the Saudis operate the U.S.-made systems, Knights, a specialist in the military and security affairs of Iraq, Iran and the Persian Gulf states, said in a Washington Institute posting last week.

"Many of the components needed to defend against a cruise missile swarm are in place -- radars, missiles batteries, and anti-aircraft cannon -- but they were evidently not alert enough or not handled boldly enough to parry this blow," he wrote.

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Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford told reporters traveling with him in London last Tuesday that U.S. air and naval forces in the region, which have been ramped up against the Iranian threat with the carrier Lincoln's battle group and a B-52 Stratofortress task force, did not track the swarms.

"We don't have overhead imagery to share," he said. "We don't have tracks to share; we don't have an unblinking eye over the entire Middle East at all times.

"Our intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities are focused on threats routinely to us; we wouldn't necessarily see everything that goes on in the region."

For his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin used the attacks as an opportunity to pitch his own advanced S-400 missile and air defense system to the Saudis.

"The political leadership of Saudi Arabia just needs to make a wise state decision" to buy the S-400, he said at a joint news conference in Ankara last Monday with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Photos of the news conference showed Rouhani laughing as Putin touted the capabilities of the S-400, which has been purchased by NATO member Turkey, causing a rift in relations with the U.S. In response, the U.S. suspended sales of the F-35 advanced stealth fighter to Turkey.

Following White House meetings last week with President Donald Trump on Iran, Dunford and Defense Secretary Mark Esper called the attacks "well planned and sophisticated."

In response, the U.S. will send more troops and assets, possibly including more Patriots, to the region, they said at a Pentagon briefing late last Friday.

Dunford said deployment details are being worked out with U.S. Central Command and will likely be announced later this week. He indicated the number of troops deploying will likely be in the hundreds.

For the time being, a U.S. retaliatory strike against Iran does not appear to be in the mix of possible "options" proposed to Trump by Esper and Dunford. The president told reporters in the Oval Office last week that the initial U.S. reaction would be to show "restraint."

On the Sunday talk shows, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo again put the blame for the Saudi attacks squarely on Iran, although the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen initially claimed responsibility.

Pompeo said on ABC's "This Week" program that the Iranians "clearly bombed that oilfield."

Also on "This Week," former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said, "This is the way this [Iranian] regime conducts its policy. There's nothing new here."

Mattis said the U.S. needs to develop a "coherent policy" against Iran in partnership with allies, but for the moment "will have to play the ball where it lies now" and focus on diplomacy.

However, Pompeo told reporters traveling with him last week to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that the planned boost of U.S. assets in the region only offers the possibility that another attack would be "less successful."

"We want to make sure that infrastructure and resources are put in place such that attacks like this would be less successful than this one appears to have been," he said.

Saudi Arabia currently has at least six Patriot batteries, which cost about $1 billion apiece, according to Bloomberg News. But analysts said the systems are designed to defend against high-flying ballistic missiles and were vulnerable to swarms of low-and-slow drones and subsonic, ground-hugging cruise missiles.

Systems such as the Patriot are also meant for so-called "point" defense and were not designed as an umbrella defense over wide areas, the analysts said.

"Only a small handful of air defense systems," such as the "Gauntlet" system supplied by Russia to Iran, "have so far been deployed that are even intended to deal with advanced, low-flying UCAV [Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles] and cruise missiles that can fly complex, long-range profiles," Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) analyst Anthony Cordesman said in a report last week.

The Russian TOR-M1 9A331-1, or Gauntlet, "is a low- to medium-altitude, short-range surface-to-air missile system designed for intercepting aircraft, cruise missiles, precision-guided munitions, unmanned aerial vehicles and ballistic targets," according to, an independent nonprofit.

Cordesman, holder of the Arleigh Burke Chair at CSIS, said the UCAVs and cruise missiles used "the method of 'hugging' the ground with terrain avoidance systems to evade radar and other forms of detection."

The weapons also had "the ability to home in remotely with great precision on key point targets that can include the most expensive fixed industrial, infrastructure and military targets and use comparatively small amounts of explosives to destroy key components," he said.

Knights, the Washington Institute analyst, also pointed to the accuracy of the drones and cruise missiles.

"Seventeen individual impact points were struck at the Abqaiq facility, with a smaller number [perhaps as low as two] at Khurais," he said.

"The weapons were highly accurate. For instance, all 12 of the 30-meter-wide spheroid gas-oil separation tanks at Abqaiq were hit almost dead-center," Knights said in his analysis of the attacks.

Well before the attacks, CSIS analyst Seth Jones co-authored a report stating, "All of Saudi Arabia is threatened by Iranian missiles, and the number of Iranian missiles capable of reaching the country would overwhelm virtually any missile defense system."

In a CSIS podcast last week, Jones, the former director of the International Security And Defense Policy Center at Rand Corp., said the attacks pose a strategic dilemma for the U.S.

"I think the Iranians are smart enough to understand if they had taken a military action, either directly or indirectly, at us -- at U.S. maritime vessels, U.S. bases in the region -- we would have responded almost certainly with military force," he said.

"If you hit the Saudis and not us, well then, that's a debate," Jones said. "Do we respond? Do we let the Saudis respond? How do we respond? Cyber operations?

"I think the Iranians recognize that the way they did this -- in the target they hit, the Saudis -- made the response for the U.S. much more complicated, but they got the message across" that there would be a continuing price to pay for the sanctions that have devastated Iran's economy, he said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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