(CNN)Saudi Arabia has spent billions on state-of-the-art air defense and early warning systems, but a mix of cruise missiles and drones was able to penetrate its airspace on Saturday, inflicting substantial damage on the world’s largest oil processing plant at Abqaiq.
That suggests serious shortcomings in where Saudi systems are placed and what they’re designed to do. But it also illustrates a bigger problem: the age of drone warfare is a massive challenge to governments around the world.
The cruise missiles used in the attacks were re-tooled versions of a Russian design from the 1970s — and drones are still the poor man’s missile even if they are getting more sophisticated. In other words, 5% of global oil supply was taken out by weapons worth not even millions — let alone billions — of dollars.
A US defense official told CNN that Saudi and US missile defense systems did not detect the launch nor engage the missiles. One reason was that much of the “missile defense architecture” is oriented toward Yemen from where Houthi forces have regularly fired missiles and drones over the past two years, the official said.
In the aftermath of the attacks, US President Donald Trump has ordered new sanctions on Iran. While Trump has not definitely stated that Iran was behind the strikes, others in his administration have pinned blame on Tehran. Iran has denied responsibility for Saturday’s attack.
According to a source familiar with the Saudi/US investigation into the attacks, the cruise missiles flew at very low altitude to avoid detection and would have avoided traveling over the Persian Gulf where US and Saudi radar systems are strongest.
The Saudis have dealt effectively with the barrage of short-range ballistic missiles fired from Yemen in the past two years. Saudi Defense Ministry spokesman Lt. Col. Turki al Malki told a news conference on Wednesday the Kingdom had intercepted more than 230 such missiles.
But ballistic missiles, which leave and then re-enter the atmosphere, are not the current problem.
Saudi Arabia has six battalions of US-made Patriot batteries designed to take out incoming missiles. Jeremy Binnie, Middle East editor at Jane’s Defence Weekly, says that according to satellite imagery “the Saudis have shifted Patriots back to defend the eastern province, with one facing towards Iran, the other towards Yemen.”
Recently another was deployed just to the east of Abqaiq but again facing Yemen. But any cruise missile approaching from the north would have appeared only fleetingly — if at all — on its radar.
Compounding the problem, Binnie says, is “Iran’s development of cruise missiles with ranges that can exploit gaps. Saudi defenses were already stretched by the threat from Yemen and now these new Iranian weapons are opening up even more attack options.”