If the Saudi attack was actually launched from Iran, America has a lot more to worry about than oil


When intelligence sources indicate that last week’s attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities “originated” in Iran, there’s a good reason to believe they’re correct—from a certain point of view. The Houthi militia in Yemen, which has claimed responsibility for the attack, has previously used both missiles and drones that were manufactured at least in part in Iran. As Ars Technica reported in 2017,  that includes the Qasef-1, a “lingering munition” drone about a quarter the size of a small plane, which is capable of carrying a single small bomb or incendiary device on a one-way mission. The attack on Saudi refineries may have used drones that were manufactured in Iran, or the Houthi may have simply cloned the Iranian device, just as Iran cloned Russian Scud missiles. Even Iranian Qasef-1 drones are built from a hodgepodge of international parts, including Chinese engines, and very similar drones are made in at least six other nations.

What’s much less certain is that the attack “originated” from Iran in the way most people would interpret that term—as in, was launched from Iran. In fact, this seems extremely unlikely. Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen is over 500 miles from the sites that were damaged—well outside the range of most small drones. Potential launch sites in Iran are less than 200 miles away, making them at first seem like a much more possible source of the weapons. But that’s not the whole story.

There’s the little fact that drones coming from Iran would have had to sail 200 miles across the Persian Gulf, right over the heads—and through the radars—of the U.S. Navy. And drones, even smallish drones like the ones apparently employed in the attacks, are far from invisible to radar. In fact, they’re visible to even relatively poor radar. Witness the shoot-down of a U.S. spy drone in June. Both the radar system and the weapons used in bringing down the American Global Hawk were an order of magnitude less sophisticated than the systems that are onboard the Navy ships spread out across the Persian Gulf.

Not only is the nuclear aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln apparently hovering near the southern entrance to the Gulf, with its 70-some aircraft ranging far up Iran’s coast, but it is far from alone. It’s accompanied by dozens of other ships as part of a strike group, including at least one cruiser and a pair of destroyers especially designed to ward off attacks from missiles and drones.

If Iran successfully flew 10 low-cost drones across the Persian Gulf to strike targets in Saudi Arabia, there’s a reason to be concerned that’s much larger than a momentary bump in the cost of oil. Because the implication of that action would be that the systems meant to safeguard American fleets around the world have a massive security hole.

Almost every member of the strike group accompanying the Abraham Lincoln larger than a patrol boat is carrying some form of the Aegis Combat System. That system should have lit up a drone crossing the Gulf in a heartbeat. Even if the drone was slow. Even if it was low. Even if that ship was a hundred miles away. And then there are the aircraft in the region. Those aircraft aren’t flying continuous sorties over the Gulf for weather reports.

Had these drones launched from Iran, or from one of Iran’s small boats in the Gulf, there should be no question of waiting to identify the source by looking at the remains of drones and doing a military post-mortem. Someone from the Pentagon should have been on television Sunday with images, radar traces, and every bit of irrefutable evidence to show exactly the course traced by these drones.

That they’ve not done so is scary. Because the whole viability of the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf and beyond rests on exactly the ability of these systems to detect airborne attack. If the source of these drones was not actually somewhere quite near the damaged refineries, then the Aegis system has a hole big enough to drive, well, at least 10 medium-sized drones with enough incendiaries to take out a pair of oil facilities through. That should be concerning.

After all, Iran has more on hand than just the pokey Qasef-1, whose top speed is somewhere below 200 mph. In 2013, Iran showed footage of a new purpose-built anti-ship missile designed specifically to cut through defensive systems at the time. That missile traveled at over 2,000 mph. A year later, Iran announced that it had an upgraded missile capable of almost 3,000 mph. In 2018 it announced that it had new versions of this missile upgraded to withstand jamming and electromagnetic defenses.

If war breaks out with Iran, the U.S. fleet at the mouth of the Gulf will be facing dozens of truck-mounted mobile launchers that are difficult to take out, firing missiles coming at them at 40 miles a minute … from about 40 miles away. It’s the kind of attack that Aegis was built to withstand, and it would be a helluva test.

But before they start that test, they might want to ask how it’s possible that we don’t know who fired those drones.

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