Brazen drone strikes lead to questions about Saudi air defense -analysis

Smoke and fires could be seen in the early morning hours of Saturday; satellites showed the smoke covering areas in northeast Saudi Arabia, not far from the border with Bahrain.

By
September 15, 2019 13:21
2 minute read.
Brazen drone strikes lead to questions about Saudi air defense -analysis

Fires burn in the distance after a drone strike by Yemen's Iran-aligned Houthi group on Saudi company Aramco's oil processing facilities in Buqayq. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Saudi Arabia received strong support from its allies in the US, Pakistan and the Persian Gulf after 10 drones fired by Houthi rebels in Yemen struck key oil facilities.

The proximity to Bahrain, some 50 km. from the areas hit, leads to serious questions about how drones penetrated deep into Saudi airspace and hit the strategic facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais. The US Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, and America has air bases and other facilities along the Gulf from Kuwait to the UAE protected by its air defense. They also have radar that can detect threats more than 150 km. away, which should be able to detect drones.

Yet the drone attacks at 4 a.m. don’t seem to have triggered a US response or alert. An email to CENTCOM resulted in a response that although the US was aware of open source reports, further inquiries should be directed to the Saudi Interior Ministry.

US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia John Abizaid condemned the attacks. “These attacks against critical infrastructure endanger civilians, are unacceptable, and sooner or later will result in innocent lives being lost.”

Kuwait expressed support for Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates called the attacks a terrorist attack. “We stand fully with Saudi Arabia in combating all threats to security and stability,” a UAE statement said.

Pakistan also joined in condemning the attacks. Kuwait strongly condemned the attack and called on the international community to redouble efforts to combat the Houthi aggression, according to the website Arab News. Kuwait has condemned attacks on Saudi Arabia before, recently in August when another long-range drone attack struck the Shaybah oil facilities.

The support for Saudi Arabia is clear, but Riyadh’s response is forthcoming. The kingdom must now weigh what comes next and who it will hold responsible. There are questions about how drones from Houthi rebel-held areas in Yemen could actually reach the area near Bahrain.

It appears they may have been launched from somewhere else. That leads to questions about why air defense didn’t intercept them or at least raise an alert. Video from Saudi Arabia allegedly includes sounds of gunfire against the drones. But gunfire at night against drones is ineffective. In addition, another video allegedly from Kuwait includes the noise of a “drone” passing overhead, although the sound resembles a jet engine rather than a UAV.

Saudi Arabia has been warning its allies about the drone threat since May. Visitors to King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah could see Houthi drones on display, reinforcing the message of their threat.

Riyadh has shot down drones before, such as the Qasef-2K model, shot down by an F-15 in August. The Houthis may take credit for these attacks, but the long distance attacks, such as occurred in mid-May and mid-August, may have come from elsewhere.

The Wall Street Journal says the May 14 attack originated in Iraq. That 10 drones hit what Bloomberg calls the “heart of the kingdom’s energy industry” is important – and it may be a game changer.

But it also leads to lingering questions about air defense throughout the Gulf and threats by drones in the area. The brazen attack was a major escalation, and the response is likely to be severe.


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