On Sept. 14, 2019, the Aramco oil facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia were attacked by drones and possibly cruise missiles. While the rebel Houthi movement in Yemen claimed responsibility, few believed this canard. American, British, French, German and Saudi intelligence officials all point to Iran as the culprit. This is just the latest of Iran’s destabilizing actions in the region.
The oil field attack was significant, as it cut Saudi oil production in half — a significant hit to the world’s production. Tensions in the region have been higher than usual in the face of the ongoing conflict in Yemen, the American diplomatic and trade pressure on Iran, Iran’s hostile actions against shipping (mining two vessels and highjacking others), and most recently “offering” at a U.N. General Assembly meeting to take over regional security responsibilities to get the West to leave the region.
Beyond all that, the West needs to learn some lessons from the attack. Missile defense critics quickly deemed Saudi Arabia’s use of the American-made MIM-104 Patriot surface-to-air missile system as insufficient protection for this attack. Perhaps it was, but we don’t yet know enough to make that call. Western leaders should not jump to premature conclusions of which weapons and technology were even used or if any of the current defense systems “failed.” This helps no one, is opportunistic and could lead to dangerous decisions going forward.
These “trigger happy” naysayers are declaring that in light of the reliability of the Patriot program and other American products, they should be dumped and the Russian S-400 system adopted instead. This is just nonsense. The Patriot is primarily designed to stop high-flying jet aircraft and large ballistic missiles, while drones and short-range cruise missiles fly too low to be effectively detected by the Patriot radar.
But news alert: The S-400 is also not built for hitting low-flying targets. This rank speculation from missile defense critics and further propagated by media that don’t understand the complexities of missile defense only emboldens adversaries that are working against the interests of the U.S. and our allies.
In the coming weeks, intelligence agencies are slated to release their findings about the attack, and only at that point should we be considering what needs to be done differently to prevent another attack. The likelihood that the conclusion is to “buy Russian” is, and very well should be, low.
The reality is more likely this: Effective missile defense systems are not based on one weapon capable of stopping everything. Only diverse, layered and integrated air and missile defense systems in combination can combat all types of incoming attacks. Without an interconnected, layered system that can work together and be successfully operated by highly trained personnel, there will be gaps in the coverage — regardless of where or who it’s made by. As mentioned, the Patriot was built to protect against high-flying targets, and without integration with other weapons like counter-unmanned aircraft systems that are rapidly evolving, targets like Aramco are not fully protected.
It’s not only difficult to believe that a proven system like Patriot that’s deployed in 17 countries and has been used successfully in hundreds of combat engagements simply failed, it is also highly unlikely. We also don’t yet know other specifics such as employment techniques and crew-training levels around the oil facilities. All these factors are very likely to add to the complexity of the investigation.
It bears repeating that any one missile defense weapon system alone is not designed to protect against all possible air attacks. Never has that been truer than today, given the growing threat of drone technology — and drones were the key in this attack. We must continue to develop technologies that will detect these types of small, unmanned aircraft and find ways to more effectively protect our assets from these asymmetrical assaults.
The bottom line is that a full investigation into the Aramco attack is necessary to diagnose the problem, and only when that is completed should “corrective” prescriptions be considered. We cannot allow this incident to shift focus on the still-significant and larger missile defense threats we still face.
Additionally, we need interoperability of missile defense systems between allies. This is a time for more concerted efforts to achieve the sort of layered defenses that are truly needed, not for the adoption of outliers such as the Russian systems.
Steven Bucci, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, is a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation think tank.