Strike on Saudi oil facilities shows need to adapt to new ways of warfare
18 Sep 2019|

The news that drones were likely employed in a major attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities at Abqaiq over the weekend has highlighted how unmanned aerial technology can be exploited by state and non-state actors at range and with precision. The attack generated strategic effects by cutting 5% of global oil production in minutes. It represents a serious escalation of tensions in the Middle East. The US has pointed the finger at Iran and the attack could trigger US military retaliation if it’s determined that Iran was indeed responsible.

When considering the broader implications of this attack a reality check is important. It’s still unclear whether drones alone were used. It’s more likely that a combination of drones and cruise missiles were fired at the Saudi facilities. And they were certainly not off-the-shelf drones available to the general public but would have been military-spec systems. For example, Iran is equipped with the Shahed 129, which can carry four Sadid-345 precision glide bombs and has a combat range of 1,700 kilometres—more than enough to reach the target area from parts of Iran, Iraq or Yemen.

Such a system, if supported by advanced geospatial intelligence and effective operational analysis, could produce the level of accuracy and precision shown in the strikes on the Saudi facilities. The use of drones at Abqaiq, potentially in combination with Soumar cruise missiles, highlights the potential impact of long-range precision attacks guided by effective intelligence.

Drones can ‘swarm’ to attack a target en masse—without human control and at a much lower cost than traditional military aircraft. Chinese companies associated with the People’s Liberation Army have demonstrated swarms of more than 1,000 drones coordinating together and flying autonomously. If each drone carried an explosive charge, or could release a precision weapon, the effect of such a swarm on ground targets—or potentially naval vessels or exposed personnel—would be deadly.

The swarm is significant in how future warfare is envisaged. In the 1994, US defence analyst Martin Libicki suggested a future prospect of ‘fire-ant warfare’ in which traditional military forces would be overwhelmed by thousands of drones; we’re now seeing the early stages of that type of capability emerge.

It’s that reintroduction of massed attackers in warfare that’s the potential game changer. This is a ‘back to the future’ transformation that exploits a numbers advantage over Western military forces, which, over the past few decades, have relied on an information advantage to ensure precision, rather than a weight of numbers to win wars. An emphasis on developing technologically advanced and costly multirole manned platforms means that many Western military forces have become boutique. Militaries—like Australia’s—with small numbers of high-end manned platforms in the air, on the ground, and on and under the waves are confronting a future in which adversaries can attack using relatively cheap mass firepower.

At a more fundamental level, the emerging challenge posed by China’s anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities and the implications of swarming in warfare indicate that our adversaries have studied the Western way of warfare that has largely stood still conceptually since the early 1990s. Our information edge is also not unassailable. In a future conflict, China and Russia could use counter-space and cyber capabilities to render the US and its allies deaf, dumb and blind from the outset, and then conduct a swarming strike via long-range cruise and ballistic missiles together with advanced drones.

For Western forces, the information edge is still important, but it’s also increasingly vital for our adversaries. Iran (if indeed it is behind the attacks) could not have delivered a precision strike against Saudi oil facilities without access to advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

If Iran had the support of a major global actor with such capabilities, then carrying out the Abqaiq raids becomes possible. In any future war, the use of advanced space and near-space sensors will be critical for those states wishing to employ long-range strike capabilities and swarming technologies. That means the battle for an information advantage—on earth and in space—will become ever more critical.

For Western liberal democracies, the challenge posed by drones isn’t just about the risk of technology proliferating into the hands of potential adversaries; it’s also about the ethical and legal issues associated with how we use such capabilities. These concerns become acute when we consider autonomous systems directed by artificial intelligence, which at some point could be making their own choices about the use of lethal force. There is, quite rightly, an intense debate on how to use such a capability—or whether to ban it outright.

The Australian Defence Force will soon acquire its first armed unmanned combat aerial vehicle—a variant of the US MQ-9 Reaper. These UAVs will remain under human control, with humans ‘on the loop’, especially in relation to weapons release. Political oversight and the meeting of strict requirements in terms of discrimination and avoidance of civilian risk will be of key importance in their use.

For our opponents, either in authoritarian states or terrorist organisations, it’s not at all clear that ethical and legal issues matter. Authoritarian states seeking to develop and deploy swarming drones can’t easily be prevented from doing so. The relatively low cost of drone technology and its effectiveness in providing a new type of long-range precision firepower that can circumvent Western defence advantages makes it an attractive option to our opponents.

The strike on Abqaiq demonstrates that adversaries can hit vital targets and generate quick strategic effects—evading sophisticated air defence networks in the process—at relatively low cost. Had the perpetrator of this attack launched simultaneous cyberattacks to disrupt the target’s ability to recover from drone and missile strikes, for example, the damage would have been far worse. Our defence planners need to learn the lessons the attack on Abqaiq teach us about the risks of sticking with traditional mindsets and maintaining old paradigms in the face of rapid change in warfare.