On September 14, Yemen’s Houthi militants claimed responsibility for an attack on crucial Saudi Arabian oil facilities in Buqayq and Khurais, which was carried out using a number of suicide drones (allegedly 18) and 7 cruise missiles. The exact area(s) from which the strikes were delivered still remains unknown (Interfax, September 18). And some strong evidence actually points more directly to Iran. Russian sources noted that the United States has already ascertained that the attack was launched from southern Iran, somewhere along the northern Gulf coast (Interfax, September 17). The incident forced a sharp spike in global oil prices. Additionally, it reignited discussions pertaining to the changing nature of war, the safety (or the lack thereof) of strategic objects/critical infrastructure, and the ways in which these types of sites could be better protected.
The government in Moscow construed the attack on the Saudi oil infrastructure as a new opportunity to increase its geopolitical weight in the Middle East through offers to sell Russian weaponry/munitions (see EDM, September 19). Namely, JSC Rosoboronexport stressed that, during the upcoming Dubai Airshow 2019 (November 17–21), the Russian side would “convert anti-UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] means and weaponry into a standalone dimension for further negotiations” (Interfax, September 17).
Meanwhile, commenting on the incident, Russian military experts have painted a grim outlook for US (and, in a broader sense, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s) anti-aircraft and missile-defense capabilities. One anonymous source from the Russian Ministry of Defense stated that the main deficiency of US military capabilities in this realm is premised on an “inability to effectively deal with small aerial targets and cruise missiles […] they [the US] are simply not ready to repel massive attacks [of drones and cruise missiles].” The source also noted that in addition to the failure of its regional land-based missile-defense complexes (88 pieces), the US Navy stationed in the Gulf, equipped with Aegis ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems, also failed to react (Rossyiskaya Gazeta, September 19). According to Russian defense scholar Yuri Liamin, the September 14 UAV/missile attack also highlighted the inefficiency of anti-missile/anti-aircraft weapons produced in the 1980s, which are incapable of effectively dealing with small, low-flying targets. Whereas, Russia’s most up-to-date weaponry—especially, the Tor and the Pantsir-S1 missile systems—are ideal for such tasks, Liamin claimed (Rossyiskaya Gazeta, September 19).
The ultra-conservative Russian information outlet Novosti-novorossii.info went even further, claiming that “the US (and the West in general) does not have any effective short- and medium-altitude means of anti-aircraft/missile defense whatsoever […] throughout their history, they [the US Armed Forces] have been developing the means to counter strategic weaponry, being primarily concerned with protecting large and long-distance areas […] whereas systems aimed at the protection of closer areas and dealing with low-flying objects, such as attack aircraft and helicopters, were virtually ignored” (Novosti-novorossii.info September 19).
Other Russian sources concentrated on different aspects of the drone and cruise missile attack, primarily discussing the actual types of weaponry employed. One piece—basing the results of its investigation on visual imagery analysis—argues that, during the attack, the militants used “simple drones […] as well as 12 Quds-1 cruise missiles produced by militants of the Houthi movement [Ansar Allah]… these missiles employ the Czech-produced [PBS Velká Bíteš] TJ-100 small turbojet engines (or their analogues) typically used in small UAVs with a radius of up to 200 kilometers.” Interestingly, the piece argues that this weaponry could not have selected targets on the territory of Saudi Arabia without having been first transported closer to the site. The research also focused on the deficiencies showcased by the US-made Patriot missile-defense system in March 2018, when another incident (which also involved Houthi militants) resulted in one missile blowing up prematurely and the second one abruptly changing its trajectory. In the final analysis, however, the report raises doubts about whether “any of the currently existing anti-missile/anti-aircraft systems, including Russian ones, would be capable of effectively repelling a swarm drone attack” (Esquire.ru, September 17). Indeed, Russian forces in Syria experienced just such difficulties with repelling drone attacks in early 2018, for example (see EDM, January 17, 2018). Additionally, in an article published by Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, leading Russian military expert Alexander Khramchikhin expresses his own doubts, stating that the declared indomitability of Russian air- and missile-defense might in fact seriously diverge from reality (see EDM, May 7, 2019).
Another Russian source analyzing the results of the attack on the Saudi oil facilities presumes that the Quds-1 missile (presented by the Houthi militants in 2018) was in fact produced with Iranian help. The article claims that the missile in question—while originating from the Iranian long-range Soumar cruise missile (in turn, thought to be a copy of the nuclear-capable Soviet/Russian Kh-55 cruise missile)—has some “unique characteristics, such as a turbojet engine and static wings.” The piece also argues that “the main strength of this engine […] is its small size and weight, which results in a lower consumption of fuel […] allowing the missile to be fired at a range of 150 kilometers.” Another interesting aspect highlighted by this source’s research is “the optional use [by the missile] of either GPS or the [Russian] GLONASS [global satellite] navigation system… as well as the TERCOM [Terrain Contour Matching] navigation system, which de facto allow the missile to be invisible to radar while flying at a low altitude” (Topwar.ru, September 15).
In the final analysis, an interesting (though, of course, highly controversial) theory regarding the incident was put forth by the influential Russian blogger El Murid, who has also expressed doubt that the actions of the Houthi militants (“an example of a typical proxy force”) were fully independent. Specifically, he suggested that one should look not only at involvement by Iran but even at the Saudi power structure itself, which is beset by myriad internal controversies. As he alleges in a blog post, one potential suspect is a “faction within the Saudi royal family that is keen to normalize ties with Iran and Qatar. One of its leaders is the former Minister of Internal Affairs Muhammad bin Nayef […] who was removed from all official positions… This caused a new surge in the internal struggle [in Riyadh]” (El-murid.livejournal.com, September 15). It is unclear to what degree anyone in the Kremlin may accept such allegations and, if so, what implications this could have on Moscow’s Saudi policy going forward.