What The Strike on Saudi Arabia’s Oil Facilities Teaches Us

Originally published on ASPI Strategist

Summary

  • We take precision for granted in modern warfare, but true precision strike capability requires sophisticated infrastructure
  • Targeting and intelligence is even more important than having precise weapons
  • Without targeting, you get “precise misses” like the Indian airstrikes in Balakot
    • Weapons precisely hit the coordinates they are given
    • However, the coordinates are simply wrong
  • The Saudi Air Force, despite being armed with be best in precision-guided munitions that the West can sell, has not mastered precision warfare
  • Many of the more egregious instances of mass civilian casualties in Yemen stem from Saudi incompetence rather than cruelty
    • Poor targeting
    • Insufficient intelligence
    • Lack of training and familiarity with weapons systems
  • In contrast, the 09/14 attacks on Saudi Arabia demonstrated significant precision, even though they were carried out with much lower-end weapons systems
  • Precision resulted from much better surveillance and targeting prior to attack
    • Attacker did not hit random portions of the oil facility – targets were carefully chosen to maximize the damage inflicted
    • Flaring and pipeline fires elsewhere along the Saudi coastline indicate significant second-order effects
  • It’s possible that the Houthis would have had the necessary expertise to know which targets to hit – Yemen does have some smaller refineries which are under Houthi control
  • It’s certain that the Iranian government has the necessary expertise to know which targets to hit
  • Each individual target was hit very precisely – can see in satellite images that storage tanks hundreds of meters apart were hit in exactly the same way
  • Suggests that GPS guidance was used
  • Also indicates that the attacker had access to detailed, high resolution imagery tagged with geospatial metadata
  • This imagery was likely provided by a third party with access to sophisticated space-based ISR
    • Has to be either Russia or China
    • Probably Russia, because China has relatively few incentives to cause oil prices to spike
  • Iran may have reappropriated data that was shared with it by Russia (as part of Iran’s shared efforts with Russia in Syria) without Russian knowledge
  • Just as significant as the attack was the fact that Saudi Arabia was completely unable to defend against it
  • Saudi Arabia has an entire arm of its military dedicated to air defense – they were still caught with their pants down
  • The above evidence indicates that the adversary has the following capabilities
    • Precision weapons and delivery mechanisms
    • Ability to carry out long term “effects based” planning – adversary has enough planning, analysis and intelligence gathering resources to know how to work backwards from desired effects to targets
    • Ability to pick and choose weapons systems in order to inflict desired effects on the target
    • Stealth, or at least the ability to evade Saudi air defenses
  • For all of these reasons, we should suspect the Iranian state rather than the Houthis
  • We can also posit the backing (possible unknowing) of great power like Russia
  • Clear evidence that the gap between Western militaries and second-tier powers is narrowing when it comes to precision strike
  • Western militaries have gotten used to air-supremacy – Western ground units don’t worry about being attacked from the air
  • While Western aircraft are still superior, it’s increasingly possible to get the same effects as airstrikes using drones, cruise missiles and conventionally armed ballistic missiles

My thoughts

  • I agree with many of the conclusions of the piece, but I think it overstates Saudi competence and understates the possibility of human intelligence
  • I think it’s more likely that the Iranians got their targeting data from HUMINT assets rather than satellite imagery
    • Iran has a long record of using relatively cheaper HUMINT as a way of equalling adversaries’ superior ELINT capabilities
    • As Westerners, we need to be careful of the mode of thinking where we say, “This is how we would have done X, therefore it is how our adversaries accomplished X
  • Overstatement of Saudi competence
    • I don’t think you need to do anything special to evade Saudi air defenses
    • Air defense operators were probably (literally) asleep at their consoles
    • Saudi military is primarily used for prestige, nepotism and sinecures
    • Only has been called upon to act as a fighting force very recently, and it shows
    • Saudis are well equipped, but don’t have the doctrine or training to use any of their equipment effectively – the article itself points this out
    • Saudis are more analogous to a Soviet client-state than they are to another US ally like the UK or Israel
  • I do agree that this attack highlights how much convergence there has been in precision-strike capability between Western armed forces and non-Western armed forces