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Dismal failure of Saudi defences may entangle US just where Iran wants it

Long-term political consequences could be even more serious for the US and its allies than the uselessness of their defence systems.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
26 September 2019
An uncrewed aircraft in an exhibition hall
An Iranian Shahed drone on show in January
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Fars News

The drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil processing plant was a surprise – and that was itself surprising in view of all the Western defensive hardware, let alone the major US and British naval presence, very close by. The Saudis were initially reluctant to give many details, save blaming the Iranians rather than the Yemenis. Quite a lot more information has now seeped out, however: it suggests that the political consequences of the Abqaiq attack may last long after the oil plant is repaired.

Abqaiq was hit by eighteen armed drones and the Khurais oil field was hit by four cruise missiles. A further three cruise missiles were aimed at Abqaiq, but all fell short of their targets. It appears that Saudi air defences failed to intercept any missile or drone: the intruders may not even have been tracked en route to their targets, according to Jane’s Defence Weekly.

Furthermore, US officials say that all the drones and missiles were launched from south-western Iran on a flight path that would have taken them across the tip of Kuwait. In response the Kuwaiti authorities have launched an inquiry into the possible violation of airspace – which suggests that they did not detect the missiles either.

To be blunt, none of this should have happened, given the extensive and hugely expensive air defences that the Saudis have installed to safeguard Abqaiq and other facilities from Iranian and Houthi missiles. The main component is the US Patriot AN/MPQ-53-65 anti-missile system – but this has a field of view of only 120°, about one-third of the compass. The Abqaiq batteries were located to the east of the plant but pointed southward towards Yemen, whereas most, perhaps all, of the missiles and drones were launched from Iranian territory to the north.

If these were indeed Iranian armaments, the Abqaiq attack did not show the limits of what they can do. Iranian cruise missiles have a range of about 700 km, armed drones of 1,200 km, and the nearest Iranian territory to Abqaiq is far less than that. The Iranians have been developing drones for over a decade – they were even exhibited openly at an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps event five years ago. They are believed to carry fragmentation warheads and to have GPS guidance and what Jane’s describes as “a comparatively efficient rotary engine”. The kind of GPS guidance available to the Iranians may fall far short of the pin-point accuracy of US systems – it didn’t need to be, given the sheer size of Abqaiq and the use of fragmentation warheads.

Abqaiq had other air defence measures that also failed. These included the short-range Shahine, developed from the French Crotale system, and Skyguard, a radar-controlled system using Sparrow missiles and anti-aircraft guns that, according to its marketing, is effective against cruise missiles and drones. Skyguard is manufactured by Rheimetall in Germany and is based on a joint project of the Swiss Oerlikon company and Raytheon of the US. In addition, the Saudi Air Force has the E-3A Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) intended, again according to Jane’s, specifically “to focus on low-flying threats to vulnerable systems”.

None of these had any effect. The Iranian success was a disaster for Saudi Arabia and an embarrassment for US, French, German and Swiss arms suppliers. Given that Saudi Arabia has many oil and gas fields and processing plants, not to mention a series of huge desalination plants on which the kingdom depends for half of its drinking water, it is easy to see the extreme concern behind the scenes in Riyadh.

Return of the crusaders

Even so, the real significance may lie elsewhere. Let’s start with an apparently minor decision taken three months ago that scarcely registered with Western politicians: the return of uniformed US troops to the kingdom.

After the 1991 Iraq War the US kept thousands of troops in Saudi Arabia, but the presence of foreign forces in military uniform was dangerous for the House of Saud. It showed that the governing family could not function as the Guardian of the Two Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina without the aid of the ‘crusaders’. In the 1990s this gave a great boost to Osama bin Laden and the growing al-Qaida movement.

Because of this the US troops left the kingdom in 2004 after the start of the 2003 Iraq war, even if many Americans stayed on in civilian guise. With that withdrawal, one of the biggest US bases, a large part of the Royal Saudi Air Force’s Prince Sultan Air Force Base, was closed down, leaving the Saudis as the sole occupants. That was until July this year when, according to Military.com:

Air Force Col. David Jackson, commander of the 621st Contingency Response Wing, told Military.com last week that teams from his wing were sent to Prince Sultan, about 50 miles southeast of the capital of Riyadh, to prepare the airfield for renewed operations.

The numbers were small – around 120 people – but related directly to the increasing tensions with Iran. Prince Sultan base now looks highly likely to be the main staging post for around 500 uniformed US military to be deployed to the kingdom to boost its own inadequate air defences. Given the state of tension with Iran it is safe to assume that this initial deployment will be the start of something substantially bigger.

It is a perfect gift for extreme Islamist movements who can point once again to the weakness of the House of Saud: in their view the Guardian of the Two Holy Cities is anything but.

Over the past year Tehran has slowly increased its pressure on Saudi Arabia in response to Donal Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear accord. It would be wise to assume that, all along, one of Iran’s aims has been to draw Saudi Arabia and the Pentagon closer and closer together, causing dissent in the kingdom and continuing embarrassment for the royal house. The longer-term political significance of the Abqaiq attack may therefore turn out to be far greater than the temporary loss of the production of oil products.

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