What the strike on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities teaches us

ASPI has previously noted that we have come to take precision in modern warfare for granted. But weapons alone cannot achieve precision effects. Precision relies upon a large, often invisible infrastructure that develops the targeting information required to employ weapons successfully: ‘we can lose sight of the fact that the cost of precision targeting isn’t the weapons themselves, clever as they may be, it’s in the intelligence that we use to target them’. If geospatial intelligence isn’t available, or is incorrectly applied, it can result in a very precise miss, as appears to have been the case in the Indian strike at Balakot.

Poor targeting capabilities can result in civilian deaths and the destruction of critical humanitarian infrastructure. The Royal Saudi Air Force itself hasn’t mastered precision strike, as one recent study noted:

Despite first-class precision tools, and prodigious US assistance, the Saudi air campaign [in Yemen] has incurred enormous human suffering and alarming damage to civilian infrastructure … [S]ome of this devastation is the result of a calculated insensitivity intended to coerce the Houthis, but much is not … What evidence is available, however, suggests that many of these high-profile mass-casualty mistakes are the result of RSAF difficulties with dynamic targeting. Specifically, the RSAF suffers from significant process shortfalls, a critical deficiency in weaponeering expertise, and tactically inept weapons delivery.

In contrast, the 14 September strikes on Saudi Arabia demonstrate considerable precision. Much analysis of the attack on the Abqaiq oil refinery and Khurais oil field has focused on identifying who conducted it and the weapons used. There’s good evidence based on weapons debris to suggest the attack used Quds-1 cruise missiles manufactured by Iran or by Houthi rebels in Yemen with Iranian support. But it’s just as important to understand the targeting infrastructure behind the attack.

One of the military benefits of precision strikes is that each weapon used can be targeted for maximum effect. Effects-based targeting requires a sophisticated understanding of how the system being attacked works. Most accounts of the strike on the refinery stress that the individual targets were not chosen at random but were selected based on a good understanding of what would have the maximum impact. Moreover, emergency flaring and fires along pipelines indicate second-order effects beyond the immediate target area. Yemen has a small number of oil refineries, so it’s possible that the Houthis could have developed this understanding themselves. Iran, with many refineries, would also have been able to do this.

In addition, each of the individual targets appears to have been hit very precisely. The repetitive precision is remarkable. As shown in the image below, each impact point is replicated over four tanks over a target area that’s 200 metres long. The vertical accuracy of the impact points is also remarkable and suggests the use of the precise vertical coordinates that GPS-guided weapons require.

Commercial satellite imagery released by the US government showing the uniform and precision strikes against Abqaiq’s separation and stabilisation spheroid domes.
Source: Maxar via US government.

There are only two ways to gain this level of accuracy and precision. One is to have access to sophisticated geospatial intelligence in the form of orthographic imagery (imagery with embedded geospatial attributes). The other is high-resolution electro-optic and/or infrared imagery to allow automated or ‘human in the loop’ image matching of targets. The second targeting method would require access to better quality imagery than that provided by Google, which indicates the attackers had access to high-resolution space-based imagery (or undertook a reconnaissance mission, which seems unlikely).

Iran has limited space capabilities, so it’s possible that the necessary data was provided by a state that does have advanced space capabilities, like Russia (which would have had a motive to offer its services due to the spike in oil prices the strikes caused) or China (which wouldn’t have benefited in this way). It’s also possible that rather than this being the result of a deliberate Russian effort to target critical infrastructure, the Iranians misused data provided to them by Russia under intelligence-sharing arrangements arising from their partnership in Syria. That’s speculation, but just as weapons can proliferate, so can data. Counter-proliferation efforts will need to address both the hardware and software that enable precision strikes.

But just as significant as the sophistication of the attacks is Saudi Arabia’s inability to prevent them. A branch of the Saudi armed forces is dedicated entirely to air defence. It’s equipped with state-of-the-art Western radars and missiles such as the US Patriot system, as well as older short-range missiles. Despite this, it wasn’t able to defend what is arguably Saudi Arabia’s most important economic asset. While the Saudis appear to have had some success in the past in using the Patriot system to shoot down ballistic missiles launched by the Houthis from Yemen, there’s not yet any public evidence that they shot down any missiles in this attack. Even if they did, a lot still got through.

These factors indicate involvement by an actor (or actors) with all or at least most of the following:

  • precision weapons
  • weapons delivery capabilities
  • the ability to plan effects-based operations against oil installations
  • access to geospatial intelligence of a high order
  • software that integrates the selection of weapons and their effects
  • stealth or the ability to bypass Saudi air defence systems.

Some elements of this mix appear to have been somewhat improvised; the Quds-1, for example, uses an off-the-shelf Czech turbojet engine. But the use of sophisticated targeting systems suggests that a nation-state with resources and intent, and possibly the backing of a great power for the provision of targeting intelligence, was behind this attack, not the Houthis.

Granted, hitting a stationary oil refinery is not as difficult as hitting a time-critical moving target that changes its location after a weapon is launched. But the strike is clear evidence that the gap between the West and the rest in precision strike is closing.

What does this mean for Australia? Putting aside the geostrategic issues of oil prices and the risk of full-scale war, there is the immediate issue of force protection of Australian personnel and assets in the Gulf region.

Western militaries have got used to operating with aerial supremacy and neglected their land-based air defences. The F-35 and other Western fighter jets may still have a clear advantage over Russian and Chinese aircraft. But it’s increasingly possible to deliver the effects once provided only by sophisticated manned aircraft through missiles and disposable drones. Western forces, including Australia’s, are vulnerable.

The Australian Defence Force currently has nothing that can protect land forces from a missile attack (unless they are conveniently close to an air warfare destroyer). While Defence is in the process of acquiring a modern ground-based air defence system, delivery is still some years away.

In our own region, if the Iranians can hit Abqaiq very precisely, it’s reasonable to assume that China could strike targets in much of the Indo-Pacific very precisely. Moreover, the air defence system the ADF is getting is short range and scaled to protect a single deployed land force or potentially an airfield. If Saudi Arabia, with many more air defence resources protecting a much smaller area, couldn’t keep the missiles out, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to protect much of northern Australia.