Drone attack on Saudi oil facilities: Substantial investment required to avoid a repeat

Company Strategy, Economics, Middle East, Oil & Gas

The views expressed below are personal and do not express the views of ICIS

Here is a another blog post by our guest blogger, Chris Parry (CBE). Chris, a former Rear Admiral in the British Royal Navy, is now a strategic forecaster and risk expert. He is the founding chair of the UK’s Marine Management Organisation and is an internationally recognised authority on existing and emerging aspects of the marine and maritime warfare environment. A regular broadcaster and commentator in UK national newspapers and magazines, he is also an active author. His books include the best-selling Down South – A Falklands War Dairy and Sea Power in the 21st Century. 

THE ATTACK on Saudi Aramco’s Abqaiq oil processing plant and the Khurais oil field on 14 September 2019 should come as no surprise.  It was only a matter of time, especially after the use both of industrially produced and do-it-yourself varieties by both Islamic State (IS) and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) and associated militia units in Iraq and Syria.  Also, this particular attack followed on from similar drone attacks on the Shaybah natural gas liquefaction facility in August and other Saudi oil facilities in May.

As indicated by the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, there seems little doubt that the Houthi elements in Yemen that have claimed responsibility for the attack had access to Iranian technology, either to construct their own vehicles or to deploy fully assembled drones directly supplied by Iran.  Indeed, the United Nations in 2018 confirmed that the Qatef-1 drone used by the Houthis was ‘virtually identical’ to Iran’s Ababil-T version, which has a maximum radius of about 150 km (93 miles).  As such and considering that the drones were not detected entering Saudi airspace, it seems certain that several were launched from within Saudi Arabia, with the Houthi statement acknowledging ‘co-operation with honourable people inside the Kingdom’.

This latest attack has confirmed that Iran is intensifying its proxy war with Saudi Arabia by supplying sophisticated technologies and platforms to the Houthis and allowing their extended deployment.  Indeed, the Houthi-run al-Masirah TV immediately announced that operations against Saudi and other targets would ‘only grow wider and will be more painful than before, so long as their aggression and blockade continue’.  The recent attack is also intended to send a powerful message to other regimes and forces in the Gulf and Greater Middle East that Iran is capable of striking, directly or indirectly, the territory or assets of those opposing its geopolitical ambitions in the region or those who support sanctions against the Iranian regime.

The drone attacks are part of a pattern that has seen the hijacking of, and attacks on, shipping in the Gulf and the shooting down of a large US unmanned aircraft in international airspace.  Responsibility for the drone and other attacks can be readily attributed to the IRGC, whose Quds Force specializes in foreign assassinations and terrorist missions.  It has also provided training, funding and weapons to extremist groups, which have included Hezbollah, Hamas and Shia insurgents in Iraq, as well as supporting Syrian regime forces and, in this latest case, Houthi separatists in Yemen.

Military forces around the world have used and developed unmanned vehicles, predominantly in the air, since the Second World War, with the Israeli operation to suppress Syrian air defences in the Beqa’a valley in 1982 demonstrating both the advanced technology required and the value of drones in surveillance and electronic attack.  In both current and emerging scenarios, military concepts envisage their employment across land, sea and air environments in those situations that are considered dangerous (to life), deep (at sea or underground), dirty (as in contaminated or radioactive spaces) or dull (repetitive or routine tasks for which it would not be cost effective to use humans).  They can also be used for those missions that are debatable, from a legal and legitimacy point of view, and ultimately deniable.

Recent use of unmanned air vehicles in surveillance and attack roles have made them a familiar feature of modern military operations.  Their proliferation within the civilian space has seen them enter the pattern of everyday life in a wide variety of both legitimate and illicit roles.  These have ranged from aerial mapping and surveillance to consumer delivery and crop spraying, as well as trafficking of narcotics and deliveries to prisoners in gaols.  Meanwhile, other unmanned vehicles are proliferating for use on the ground and, more rapidly, at sea, for both military and civilian missions on the surface and underwater.

The low costs of entry, the ready availability of the relevant technologies and the high level of potential impact mean that unmanned vehicles are very suitable for attacks by unconventional, insurgent or activist groups.  Consequently, the world needs to prepare itself for a proliferation of drone technologies in the civic space and the widespread use of unmanned vehicles, by land, sea and air in attacks by states, groups and individuals.  As a result, there will have to be considerable investment in technology to detect and counter unmanned vehicles, with particular attention paid to high value sites, such as government and military facilities, critical infrastructure and nuclear locations.  It has already been seen how problematic even unarmed drones can be in support of activist groups, such as those that caused significant disruption at London’s Gatwick airport in December 2018 and in the potential threat posed by climate activist group Heathrow Pause on 13 September 2019.

Counters to unmanned air vehicles already include the use of area and precision jammers (used to thwart the Heathrow Pause operation), which interfere with a drone’s communications, navigation and control functions.  For air vehicles that cannot be jammed, such as those that are set, like the German V1 unmanned ‘doodlebug’ in World War Two, to run in a straight line until their fuel runs out, physical destruction will be required, through intercept by missile, gun or, in future, directed energy weapons.  Other techniques include drones that intercept other drones and either disable them with nets or snares or employ an explosive device in a mutually destructive ‘hug’.  Some companies also offer birds of prey to seize and disable smaller drones.

Similar technologies and techniques will be employed to counter ground and sea surface unmanned vehicles, but underwater drones could prove more problematic as they would operate silently in what effectively is a stealth environment.  These underwater drones will prove especially problematic for sea-bed installations, such as energy facilities (including nuclear), pipelines and underwater cables; fixed structures, such as extraction rigs and wind towers and, of course, shipping, for which they will pose a threat similar to a mobile mine.  More broadly, underwater drones are already used for trafficking, in particular dugs smuggling, but it is easy to envisage their role in terrorist attacks and other criminal activity.  Countermeasures in this environment will need to include comprehensive sonar coverage, improved acoustic processing and physical barriers to penetration by these vehicles.

Attack and defence options will be greatly enabled by the application of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (AI).  As was seen in drone displays at the Winter Olympics in South Korea in 2018, it is possible to coordinate the actions of scores of drones, either to operate alone over a wide area or in formations.  This capability translates into the ability to conduct swarm attacks that could readily overwhelm and saturate even sophisticated defensive technologies.  Conversely, AI will assist in the detection, classification and coordination of countermeasures.

In addition, on land, critical facilities (especially electronic installations, such as servers and internet enablers) will need to be concealed, in remote sites and underground, or positioned within hardened, blast-proof structures in order to counter the threat from air and ground unmanned vehicles.  Consideration will also need to be given to the implications and vulnerabilities of driverless cars, with the potential for both malicious programming and cyber penetration as the means by which anonymous and deliberate attacks could be mounted.  Urban spaces and transport infrastructure would be especially vulnerable in this regard.

As can be seen the employment of unmanned technologies will become a routine feature of modern life and their influence and utility, in the air, at sea and on the ground, will extend well into the future.  Of considerable concern is that they represent a low-cost, high impact means of attacking and disrupting both military operations and civil society, as well as having a wide variety of potential uses in support of criminal and terrorist activity.  Substantial investment, effort and vigilance will be required not only to neutralise their military use by opponents but also to counter their use individuals, groups and extremists.  In this regard, looking back eighteen years, it is worth asking why anyone today would need or wish to attack iconic, high value buildings by hijacking civilian aircraft.

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