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Saudi Arabia Spent Billions on State of Art Air Defense Systems but They Came a Cropper in the Face of Low-Cost Drones

A senior air warrior, graduate from the Staff College and a PG in military studies. He is qualified to write on war and allied matters.


The Event as it Took Place

A top Saudi oil complex was hit by a mixture of drones and cruise missiles. The attack was a success as the Saudi Air defences failed to detect the drone and cruise missiles. The attack on the largest oil facility in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia exposed the failure of its air defense systems. The billions spent on state of art defense and early warning systems turned out to be a waste, as a mix of cruise missiles and low-cost drones were able to penetrate its airspace on 21 September 2019. The attack was able to inflict substantial damage on the world's largest oil processing plant at Abqaiq.

It was an attack that was a surprise and unexpected. The Saudi AD systems as well as American satellite surveillance systems failed to detect the launch of cruise missiles and drones that wreaked havoc on the lifeline of Saudi economy- the production of oil

Saudi Defense Systems

The attack proves serious shortcomings in the Saudi defense systems and their ability to ward off an attack on its assets. It points to a serious lacuna in Saudi planning and the potency of its air defense systems. The attack brings forth a fact that drones are the new element in warfare and presents a massive challenge to governments around the world. CNBC has reported that the drone attacks wiped out half of the Saudi crude production in a day. This is big news and has made the world look up and wonder at the new dimension to modern war.

The cruise missiles used were of primitive origin. They were re-tooled versions of Russian design from the 1970s. Many thought that these missiles had no future, yet they proved to be lethal. The drones also cost less and are a poor man's weapon of offense. They are getting more sophisticated but overall they cost a fraction of the air defense systems installed by the Saudis.

The Saudi's had paid billions to the SS for Patriot anti-missile shield but the 6 batteries they had purchased were perhaps not properly aligned and thus failed to detect the incoming missile and drone attack.


The Attack

The attack was a success as the mix of missiles and drones seriously affected the Saudi economy. On an estimate at least 5% of the global supply of oil was affected. The attack made a dent in the Saudi economy and it will take weeks or even longer for the supply to be restored. In the bargain countries like India which are heavily dependent on Saudi oil are left wondering, though the Saudi's have assured restoration of supply.

The lesson of the attack is simple: weapons costing a few million dollars could inflict damages of billions of dollars.

The Saudi's had spent billions on early warning radars and Patriot missiles. In the ultimate analysis, they failed to detect the attack, and even now despite all the sophisticated hardware available the USA and Saudi's are not able to pinpoint from where the attack originated with any degree of certainty.

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President Trump has pointed a finger at Iran but the Iranians have vehemently denied it and pointed to the Houthis. His comment of being "locked and ready" looks like a hollow statement as apart from increasing sanctions he has done nothing. The fact is the USA and Trump are not sure that Iran is the culprit. maybe - maybe not but what is the surety?

The attack on the Saudi oil processing complex was expected but the Saudi's were confident along with their ally the USA that they would be able to defend their assets. A US defense official has told CNN that Saudi and US missile defense systems failed to detect the launch of the drones and missiles and were not able to engage them.


President Trump ordered new sanctions on Iran but he did not say that Iran was behind the attacks. It appears the missiles flew at very low altitudes and thus escaped detection. The Saudi's were able to defend against short-range missiles fired from Yemen and Lt Col Turki al Maiki, spokesperson of the Saudi defense ministry told a news conference that they had intercepted 230 missiles fired from Yemen. This is neither here nor there. The NY Times has reported the attacks exposed the flaws in the Saudi military air defense system.


Last word

The attack has shown how vulnerable modern state of art defenses are against low-cost primitive weaponry like simple drones and older generation cruise missiles. In this case, the missiles and drones flew very low and escaped detection.

The effect of low-cost drones was visible in the last war between Azerbaijan and Armenia where the Armenians despite sophisticated tanks and MIGs faced an attack by hundreds of drones capitulated in no time. This war has brought to the fore that low-cost technology can penetrate the most sophisticated air defense systems. This is the reason the Saudi air defense umbrella failed to detect the incoming rockets and drones.


MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on June 05, 2021:


MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on June 05, 2021:

Thanks, Tom, what is this movie?

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on June 04, 2021:

Thanks, Tom, drones is the in thing but I wonder what is the defence against it.

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