The debate over the military implications of relatively inexpensive drones and cruise missiles has been enlivened by the recent attacks on the Saudi Arabian oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais. This spectacular demonstration of the effectiveness of drones and cruise missiles has prompted claims that it has ‘changed global warfare’. Inevitably all modern defence force inventories will include such weapons, many already do, and military planners will need to focus on their use and defences against them. These weapons will find important roles but will not have a drastic impact on higher end conflict.
The Saudi example is not really very instructive in terms of the larger debate that includes not only drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles, but also artificial intelligence, autonomous weapons systems, and swarm technology. This broad class of weapon systems range from the relatively simple and cheap to the very complex and expensive systems, with cost directly related to precision, range, autonomy, and lethality. Some loiter unobtrusively gathering intelligence, some approximate high performance aircraft, some delivery precision strike, and some are capable of delivering tactical nuclear warheads.
The Saudi oil infrastructure was a singularly inviting target:
- It was easy. Situated in desert terrain adjacent to the waters of the Persian Gulf, the tactical environment was ideal for terrain hugging drones and cruise missiles.
- It was important. In the geopolitical context, the importance of Saudi oil production to the world economy made Abqaiq and Khurais attractive targets.
- It was inflammable! A few hits produce significant damage while the blaze in the desert provided dramatic footage for media outlets. The protagonist undoubtedly was aware of this.
The available unclassified information on the oil fields strikes is intriguing. The images showing the strikes indicate a high degree of precision. This is expensive and complicated. The attacker needed to know the location of the field, including the precise location of critical elements in the refining process, in order to produce the most damaging impact. Post-strike satellite imagery shows ‘near-identical placed holes into major components of Saudi Arabia’s oil apparatus’. An impressive achievement.
Although the combination of easily available high resolution satellite imagery and geolocation via GPS gives smaller powers and non-state actors some capabilities once reserved for superpowers, just hitting the targets would not achieve the desired effect. Warhead choice was important. The imagery appears to indicate the use of ‘shaped charges for penetrating fortified structures and others being equipped with general high explosives warheads for greater effects against unfortified structures’.
There might be all kinds of motives for such an attack. The Iranians, working through the Houthis or not, might have wanted to demonstrate the risks of war to the oil dependent region and show up President Donald Trump’s reluctance to use military force. Or show Iran’s capacity to confound expensive regional air defence systems in the case of a potential conflict.
Has the geopolitical situation changed? The sudden revelation of Saudi vulnerability could deter escalation and cause a shift in the cost calculations of the Saudis and other Gulf states over their actions in the region. If this was the objective, it was audacious in concept, meticulously planned, and professionally carried out.
Intent is one thing, capability another entirely. It is not clear that Iran has the capacity for an attack like this. Their prime candidate is a modified version of the Russian Kh-55 ground-launched long ranged cruise missile, the Hoveyzeh cruise missile, which has a range of 1350 km. This missile possesses the range, terrain hugging, and radar avoiding characteristics required. However, its is very uncertain this class of missile with GPS/INS navigation has the accuracy evident in the Saudi attack.
The failure of satellite based sensors to provide evidence of an Iranian origin for the attack is puzzling, as is the absence of casualties from the attack. The boost that this incident might provide the Trump administration’s flagging Middle East Strategic Alliance could give the US motive, and it has the capability, but even for crazy conspiracy theorists Iran remains the prime suspect.
The effort that major powers are putting into variants of drone technology answers the wider question of the strategic relevance of drones in high end, high intensity conflict between major powers. For example, investment in swarm technology to enable massed drones to overwhelm sensors and defensive systems and attackers is ramping up. However, this technology is unlikely to be available or suitable for the middle and lower powers. It requires the ability to integrate artificial intelligence, space base guidance systems, and sophisticated computing and communications technology for optimal effect. Its application seems limited to in-theatre operations.
Where, as the US Marines anticipate, massed drones deployed in advance of an assault would not just gather intelligence and counter defences, but also make autonomous lethal force decisions, the units might be cheap individually but the supporting systems and deployment assets will be costly to design, build, and operate. China has led the way ‘in producing both strike-capable systems and unweaponized systems for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions’. It has developed an amphibious drone capable of a logistics role in maritime environments. But this is an endeavour beyond more than a few nations.
As with land vehicles, ships, aircraft, sub-surface craft, and satellites before them, drones and UAVs will be developed, modified, adapted and used innovatively for military purposes. This trend is already evident. They will be integrated with existing technologies and be the platforms for new weapons research. Military planners will find ways to operate them in conjunction with existing platforms and systems to create greater tactical advantage in conflict. Their impact will be significant and ongoing not radical or transformational. They will complement and amplify existing capabilities.
What happened in the Arabian desert was more political than military. An important use of drones, nevetheless. Not the harbinger of another revolution in military affairs.
Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.