The attacks this past weekend on Saudi oil sites exploited gaps in Saudi Arabia's defenses that were known to exist but no one has figured out how to effectively close.
Saudi Arabia's Abqaiq oil processing plant and Khurais oil field are believed to have been hit by explosive drones and cruise missiles, weapons that not only crippled Saudi oil production but also highlighted just how vulnerable key energy facilities actually are.
But this was not the first attack on Saudi infrastructure to involve drones and missiles.
From April to the end of June, the Houthi rebels, an Iranian-backed force that has been battling a Saudi-led coalition since it overthrew the Yemeni government a few years ago, carried out ten drone and missile attacks on pipelines, water treatment facilities, and airports.
"The recent events show that we are exposed in terms of our defense," a Saudi official told the Wall Street Journal towards the end of June.The Financial Times reports that Saudi Arabia knew it was vulnerable to drone attacks before the most recent attacks, which were claimed by the Houthis but are suspected to have been carried out by Iranian forces, the main suspects in a series of tanker attacks earlier this year.
"They've been in a panic [over drones] since the new year," a Saudi defense industry executive told FT. "It's come down from the top — protect the nation. If you tell me [your system] can do it, get it here now."
Saudi Arabia faces a sophisticated threat from both Iran and its regional proxies. Iran has one of the longest-running drone development programs in the region, and it has been arming various groups with military hardware capable of doing real damage. These weapon systems offer less powerful militaries and even insurgents the ability to effectively strike a superior force for a relatively low cost.Saudi Arabia has the world's third-largest military budget, but drone and missile attack knocked half of its oil production capabilities offline and shut down roughly five percent of global oil production.
The problem is the traditional air defense systems, such as American-made Patriot missile batteries, that Saudi Arabia relies on are not designed to counter the threat posed by small, slow, low-flying drones. In the case of the most recent attacks, there is evidence the attack was launched from a location that would allow the incoming drones and missiles to bypass these systems anyway.
And counter-drone technology is not yet effective enough to reliably combat the type of attack that took place this past weekend.
When Saudi oil facilities were struck by drones in May, expert observers warned that the attack signaled that maritime shipping routes weren't the only energy targets vulnerable to attack.For instance, Charles Hollis, a risk consultant with Falanx Assynt, told FT that the attack underlined "that the Strait of Hormuz [is] not the only vulnerable Saudi oil export route." Although some experts have previously expressed doubt that drones could be more than a nuisance.
The latest attacks demonstrated otherwise, with Arthur Holland Michel at the founder and co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, telling Insider that they confirm "some of the worst fears among militaries and law enforcement as to just how much damage one can do" with these systems.
Drones and other unmanned systems are becoming an important component of modern warfare, one that offers asymmetric advantages.
"Around the world, militaries and security agencies are scrambling to catch up with this threat," Michel told Insider. "There is no doubt about the fact that no one has quite cracked the code."