BEIRUT — About two months have passed since the attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities by drone swarms and low-altitude cruise missiles. The air defense systems at the Aramco-run facilities were unable to stop the Sept. 14 assault from the north, despite the mix of long-, medium- and short-range platforms. Now, the kingdom’s air defenses are undergoing a realignment to provide a "360-degree air defense umbrella that could counter threats emerging from all sides,” according to a source with ties to the Arabian Gulf’s defense market.
Speaking to Defense News on condition of anonymity, the industry source from Lebanon explained that the Saudi air-defense gap lies in the orientation of the early warning and the air defense systems themselves.
“[The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] KSA owns effective air defense systems to counter drones, and they were used successfully during many Houthi attacks coming from the south. However, the problem that emerged and highlighted the gaps in the air deterrence lie[s] in the deployment of the early warning systems and air defense against these drones," the source said, adding that the defensive measures "weren’t deployed in a way to address threats emerging from the north, which was the case with Saudi Aramco attacks.”
On Oct. 11, the Pentagon announced the deployment of thousands of additional troops to “enhance the defense of Saudi Arabia,” as well as the deployment of two fighter jet squadrons, an air expeditionary wing, two Patriot batteries and a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system.
That deployment is also expected to help build an “air defense umbrella,” the source said.
But Aram Nerguizian, the co-director of the Program on Civil-Military Relations in Arab States at the Carnegie Middle East Center, believes Saudi Arabia’s air defense gap may also be a consequence of the kingdom’s reliance on international allies.
“KSA remains heavily dependent on a mix of U.S. and allied sourced systems for its air defense,” Nerguizian said. “Saudi Arabia has spent decades integrating U.S., U.K. and French air defense systems. Most of these systems are traditional short-, medium- and long-range anti-aircraft and anti-ballistic missile systems.”
“Long-range systems include the MIM-104D/F Patriot PAC-2 GEM/PAC-3. Medium-range capability remains centered on the now-aging MIM-23B I-Hawk. Variants of the Crotale/Shahine short-range missile system are in service, as are M1097 Avenger systems for point defense," he added. “Saudi Arabia’s [American-made] PAC-2 and PAC-3 systems were not designed to intercept low-altitude, ground-hugging cruise missiles or small, cross-section, low-altitude UAVs — armed or otherwise.”
A member of Lebanon’s parliament agreed with this assessment, but seemed sympathetic to the situation.
“The area of KSA is above 2 million square kilometers, which demands an increased number of air defense systems to allow full protection against threats," said Wehbe Katicha, who formerly served as a general in Lebanon’s armed forces. "Thus, [U.S. President Donald] Trump’s decision to support Saudi air defense capabilities, specifically ground-based air defense used to intercept missiles and drones.”
But what additional steps can Saudi Arabia take to prevent breaches of its airspace by missiles and drones?
“Saudi defense planning will have to factor in risks that are not unidirectional or from an anticipated attack vector, and to assume that threats can come from any direction," Nerguizian said. "In parallel, Saudi Arabia will have to focus on deploying, redeploying and acquiring more medium-range systems designed to intercept cruise missiles and UAVs over the horizon. This would have to work in tandem with a greater focus on point-defense systems placement at critically sensitive oil and gas infrastructure.
“Critically, and in line with a 360-degree threat risk,” he added, "the orientation of radar and detection systems, along with the weapons placement will need careful consideration.”
Agnes Helou is a Middle East correspondent for Defense News. Her interests include missile defense, cybersecurity, the interoperability of weapons systems and strategic issues in the Middle East and Gulf region.