Iran successfully attacked two oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, not the Houthi rebels who falsely claimed credit. My evaluation is this: The Iranian attack came from two different launch sites and employed two different weapons systems.

Drones (probably of the Abalil 2/T type) were launched from Iranian-controlled Shi’ite militia bases in southern Iraq, and cruise missiles of the Quds-1 type were launched from Iran, near the Iran-Iraq border. Twenty-two weapons were fired in all, of which 19 hit their targets, with sufficient precision to hit oil tanks in roughly the same spot.

The high precision has amazed US Pentagon analysts. They do not understand how that could be done from such a long distance and beyond the communications capabilities of even the Quds-1.

The American Tomahawk can achieve similar accuracy, but it requires very sophisticated terrain following and scene-matching electronics plus GPS. The “scenes” are assembled ahead of time and programmed into the computer memory of the Tomahawk. The flight path is predetermined and the scene matching provides the final guidance.

It is very unlikely that the Quds-1 has such accuracy. It is also unlikely that the Ababil drone can scene match or be controlled from very far away.

Of course, we will know more when the US completes its exploitation of two crashed Quds missiles that were recovered from the attack.

But my bet is that the accuracy was managed in an entirely different manner.

The ‘Houthi version’ of the Quds-1 cruise missile. The rear section, with the articulated fins, is a rocket motor to launch the missile. The engine on the top is a Czech turbine engine for sustained flight. The warhead is in the front section. Photo: supplied

 

I think Saudi Arabia was infiltrated by well-trained operators who were close to the targets and were able to guide the terminal phase of the attacking cruise missiles (and maybe the drones) via video transmitted from the missiles and drones.

The drones raise a different question, and it is highly doubtful they were the cause of the tanker strikes. What is known of the Ababil is that its warhead is a high explosive stuffed with ball bearings. It would have exploded on contact and made a mess. The Quds-1, on the other hand, could have a penetration-type warhead like an RPG, but maybe without the explosive.

Take note that the satellite photos we have show no fire on the tanks that were hit. Why not? Maybe because the idea was to blow some holes in the tanks to show what could happen – a demonstration aimed as much at the United States as at Saudi Arabia. In fact, while we are making bets I will bet this attack had nothing whatever to do with the Houthis. They were the plausible deniability Iran thought it needed. This attack was aimed at humiliating the United States.

A satellite image shows damage to oil/gas infrastructure from missile and drone attacks at Abqaig on September 15, 2019, in Saudi Arabia. The precise targeting of the tanks could be the result of ground operatives helping to direct the missiles with pinpoint accuracy. Photo: US Government / AFP

It is, for example, no surprise that Putin almost immediately offered Saudi Arabia the S-400 missile to replace the failed American Patriot air defense system. He was, at the same time, rubbing salt in the American-Saudi wound.

It would have taken months to prepare this kind of attack, not days. The drones would have to be prepared and smuggled into Iraq. The Quds-1 cruise missiles would need to be moved close to the border. The agents in the field would need to be trained and moved into Saudi Arabia. An operation like this would be an organizational and operational challenge and the Iranians proved competent.

Nothing good can be said about the air defense system in Saudi Arabia, which is based primarily on the US Patriot system. It never activated in this attack, meaning that it has poor coverage of the Kingdom.

The recent attack did not exactly come out of the blue. Last May 14 an attack against a Saudi pipeline was launched from southern Iraq. The Kingdom and the US should have been prepared for more, but were not.

US intelligence was appallingly bad, which is putting it mildly. This is an intelligence failure on the order of the failure of  9/11. Exactly why America and Saudi Arabia were so blind-sided is a question that needs answers.

Iran is trying to get rid of US sanctions and their approach is to try and humiliate the United States. Chances are there is more trouble brewing ahead. Are we prepared?