On September 14, a number of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) reportedly attacked Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq energy facility, one of the world’s largest crude oil processing sites, alongside the Khurais oil field (Middle East Eye, September 15). The drones—possibly supported by cruise missiles fired from ground positions—were apparently successful in penetrating the site’s missile-defense systems before unleashing their payloads, and in doing so temporarily disrupted around 5 percent of global oil supplies. Strikingly, satellite pictures of the facility after the assault shows that some of the attacking vehicles had apparently struck with pinpoint accuracy, hitting and damaging multiple processing units in almost exactly the same place. The Houthis, a rebel group based in Yemen, subsequently claimed responsibility, although the veracity of this claim remains disputed.
Although the implications of non-state armed groups acquiring weaponized drones have been well-documented, the scale and precision of the Abqaiq attack demonstrates that hostile actors are embracing this technology at a speed that compromises the ability of policymakers to respond effectively. Indeed, the advantages of drones for the terrorist actor—distance from target, ease of acquisition and use, ability to circumvent traditional security—make it a near-perfect weapon (Terrorism Monitor, January 11).
The Abqaiq incident is, for now, an extreme outlier event, both in terms of the attack’s scale, sophistication, and the likely level of Iranian support. Yet as the sale of increasingly sophisticated and affordable drones continues to grow exponentially, their utilization as weapons of political violence will become increasingly common.
The Abqaiq attack, therefore, provides a valuable learning opportunity to examine the defensive failures that led to a “worst-case scenario” occurring. In so doing, policymakers can consider the implications for their own jurisdictions, and begin to plan their own responses proactively. The political challenges of mobilizing a response to a threat which is still in its infancy are considerable, but failure to do so could lead to attacks like Abqaiq becoming routine across the globe.
The Kingdom’s government had obviously recognized that Abqaiq was one of its most critical national infrastructure and had responded accordingly. The site was protected by at least one Patriot missile battery, Crotale anti-air missile systems and Skyguard 35mm cannons, not to mention a local garrison (TRT Haber, September 20). That this assortment of advanced weaponry was apparently unable to protect Alqaiq in this scenario is likely to have been because such systems were designed to protect against established air threats, high-altitude missiles, conventional cruise missiles, and hostile aircraft, rather than small, low-altitude cruise missiles and autonomous or remotely piloted UAV fleets. Even if appropriate counter-UAV (CUAV) assets had been positioned, the damage pattern and timing suggest that the attackers may have adopted a swarm technique, attacking with multiple units simultaneously so as to avoid the targeting difficulty caused by smoke and debris resulting from the first weapon home. This technique, assuming that it was employed, would have likely overwhelmed all but the most robust countermeasures. That these systems were not in place at all was a failure of imagination; officials had simply not recognized that drones could pose such a significant threat, or if they had, were unable to source appropriate systems that are only now coming to the market following threats to critical national infrastructure elsewhere in the world.
However, although it is tempting to blame the attack’s success on hardware issues, there were secondary failures in intelligence and training. There appears to have been no early warning of the incoming attack, suggesting that the Kingdom’s defensive radar systems had failed to detect such small assets. Further, even if advance notice had been communicated to Abqaiq, it is unlikely that the local troops were sufficiently trained to respond to the threat, and indeed it is unclear whether they had the competence to utilize the defensive systems they already possessed.
Although casualties were limited and disruption temporary, the events at Abqaiq are an insight into the potential future of political violence. Islamic State has long recognized the potentially devastating impacts drones could have on Western cities and established their own research unit to develop this technology. If a site as well-defended as Abqaiq was unable to protect itself, then the implications for securing Western cities are chilling.
A secondary consideration is state actors providing non-state groups with drone capabilities, in order to carry out deniable operations in furtherance of their foreign policy objectives. It appears that Russia has armed Ukrainian-based anti-government forces with UAVs, and it is almost certain that Iran has done the same for the Houthis. Given the inherent difficulties of identifying the instigator of a drone attack, this makes them ideal weapons in the “grey zone” conflict areas of Ukraine and Yemen. This, in turn, raises the risk of military-grade drones proliferating on the black market, where they could ultimately be purchased by groups or individuals hostile to Western interests.
Implications for the West
In the first instance, governments must define their own regulatory framework concerning UAVs. Questions of legal exclusion zones around critical infrastructure such as airports, regulating line-of-sight operator requirements, use in urban zones and the type of drones legally acquirable are all vital first steps to clarify the operating environment.
However, as the UK found out in December last year, the difficulties of enforcing UAV legislation are considerable. Between December 19-21, reports of drone activity within Gatwick Airport’s exclusion zone triggered the closure of the airport’s sole runway, impacting over 100,000 travelers. Despite a major police response, the culprits have to this day not been identified, with two suspects released without charge on December 23. The fact that the operator can be far removed from the drone renders identification extremely challenging, particularly for non-specialist first responders, and by the time relevant assets can be deployed, the operator would have had time to cover their tracks.
As such, investment in developing the relevant capabilities among police is clearly an area of prioritization, both in interdicting plots before they can take place and in catching the perpetrators in the aftermath.
Perhaps even more significant, however, is how governments can develop the multi-layered defensive architecture required. While it is easy to point out that Abqaiq shows the need for integrated defensive systems, it is much more complex to demonstrate how this can be achieved realistically in lower-security risk environments, particularly within urban zones. This is both due to concerns over cost and likely domestic unease at integrating air-defense systems into environments with high civilian traffic. There is simply not the political will or popular support for air-defense batteries to be installed in Western cities, and this would only change in the event of a mass-casualty terrorist attack utilizing drones.
Moreover, even if the political and financial argument can be won for critical infrastructure, or even for major population centers, no government has the resources necessary to provide complete CUAV coverage. A drone attack against a sports stadium or major retail center would be potentially devastating in terms of civilian casualties and political impact, even in less high-profile towns and cities.
Nor would such UAVs need to be as advanced as the ones deployed against Abqaiq. Even a commercially available model could be easily retrofitted to drop a small payload, either of explosives or a chemical-biological agent. Indeed, even white chalk fired into a crowded space would likely cause mass panic, meaning that even low-skilled lone operators could successfully cause high-level disruption with little training, equipment, or resources.
A Tailored Response
If blanket CUAV coverage is unfeasible, then policymakers must prioritize which facilities to harden, while considering non-hardware options. The encouragement of CUAV projects, either within the security forces or the private sector, is valuable but would only deliver results over the long term. Ultimately, the rapid development of UAV capabilities means that policy and technology responses must occur in months, rather than years. Policymakers must adapt to this new reality now, rather than respond in the aftermath of the West’s very own al-Abqaiq.