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Saudi air defences ill-prepared for low-level attacks

20 September 2019 Jeremy Binnie

The attack on Saudi Arabia's Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities on 14 September prompted criticism of the air defences that the kingdom has spent billions developing since the 1990s, but failed to intercept any of the 18 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or seven cruise missiles involved.

Iran denied involvement for an attack claimed by its Yemeni allies, but its foreign minister nevertheless gloated about the failure. "Perhaps it [the United States] is embarrassed that hundreds of billions of dollars of its arms didn't intercept Yemeni fire", Javad Zarif tweeted on 17 September.

Russian President Vladimir Putin saw the attack as a sales opportunity. "[The Saudis] need to make clever decisions, as Iran did by buying our S-300, as [Turkey] did by deciding to buy the most advanced S-400 air defence systems," he said during a visit to Istanbul. "These kinds of systems are capable of defending any kind of infrastructure in Saudi Arabia from any kind of attack."

These Russian systems have a key advantage over the Patriot that many US allies have acquired at massive cost as they can detect and engage targets coming from any direction while the AN/MPQ-53/65 radar has a field of view of 120°.

That has been a serious problem for the Royal Saudi Air Defence Forces (RSADF) since 2015, when missile and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) threats from Yemen began to emerge in addition to the existing ones from Iran. Struggling to cover threats from both directions, the RSADF deployed a Patriot battery to protect the Abqaiq oil processing facility in late 2018 or early 2019, Jane's research has confirmed.

With its AN/MPQ-53/65 orientated towards the west southwest, this battery should be able to intercept any ballistic missiles coming from Yemen. However, it is poorly sited to cope with threats from the north, the direction that the Saudi military says the UAVs that attacked Abqaiq came from. US officials have pointed to satellite imagery showing the impact locations as indicating the terminal approach was actually from the west northwest. Even so, they probably would not have entered the AN/MPQ-53/65's field of view until they were less than 10 km away, leaving very little time to react. That vulnerability could arguably have been mitigated if the Patriot was deployed on higher ground further north, but still facing Yemen.

Nevertheless, Abqaiq is also protected by short-range air defences (SHORAD), including a Skyguard: a radar-controlled anti-aircraft gun system designed to intercept cruise missiles and UAVs. A photograph from a multinational exercise held in the kingdom in March indicated the Saudis have upgraded at least some of its Skyguards with new radars. Two Shahines - Saudi Arabia's improved version of the French Crotale short-range surface-to-air missile system - also appear to have been deployed at Abqaiq at the time of the attack.

However, these systems failed to intercept any of the 18 UAVs that hit Abqaiq in the early hours of 14 September. Compared with jet-powered cruise missiles, these would have been relatively slow-flying targets, much like the drones routinely used for air defence training.

A lack of early warning may have contributed to the SHORAD crews' lack of preparedness. Saudi Arabia has a chain of early warning radars monitoring its northern border but the ones at Haftar al-Batin and Al-Nuayriyah are 240 km apart, leaving plenty of space for low-flying UAVs and cruise missiles to infiltrate into the kingdom without being seen. However, the Saudis could cover such gaps by using their E-3A Sentry early warning and control aircraft to focus on low-flying threats in vulnerable sectors.

It would seem strange if the Sentries were not performing this role and the SHORAD crews at Abqaiq were not on high alert given that a threat from the north had already emerged. The Saudi military has said the same type of Iranian delta-wing UAV that hit Abqaiq was also used in the attack on the kingdom's east-west pipeline on 14 May, which was launched from the north, rather than Yemen as claimed. US officials have said that attack came from southern Iraq.

The Saudi failure to respond adequately to the new threat from the north raises the possibility that it will now use its existing assets to prevent further attacks. At the same time, even with early warning, the extensive SHORAD around Abqaiq would have struggled to shoot down all 18 UAVs and Saudi Arabia has many other sites, albeit less critical ones, that need defending.

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