Are air defense systems ready to confront drone swarms?

JERUSALEM — The attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities on Sept. 14 served as a reality check for countries struggling to define the level of the threat posed by drone swarms and low-altitude cruise missiles.

Now, in a region where that threat is particularly acute, countries are left to reexamine existing air defense technology.

According to the Saudi Defense Ministry, 18 drones and seven cruise missiles were fired at the kingdom in the early hours the day in mid-September.

The drones struck Abqaiq, a facility that the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank had warned the month before was a potential critical infrastructure target. Several cruise missiles fell short and did not hit the facility. Four cruise missiles struck Khurais. Saudi and U.S. official blame on Iran, but the government there denies involvement.

What is clear is the failure of existing air defense systems to stop the attack.

The Abqaiq facility’s air defenses reportedly included the American-made Patriot system, Oerlikon GDF 35mm cannons equipped with the Skyguard radar and a version of France’s Crotale called Shahine. Satellite images posted by Michael Duitsman, a research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, shows the setup: Impeded by radar ranges and the facility itself, as well as the speed and angle of the drones and missiles, Saudi air defense apparently did not engage the drones.


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