The Drone Strikes on the Saudi Oil Facilities Have Changed Global Warfare

There’s a lot of hand-wringing going on in defense circles across the globe over the increasing challenge of armed drones and cruise missiles, especially after the strike on Saudi oil facilities and oil fields earlier this month.

The fact is that defending against these modern weapon systems can be tough—and the failure to be able to defend against them can be quite consequential.

The Sept. 14 strike on the Abqaiq oil facility and Khurais oil field in Saudi Arabia—likely involving Iranian armed drones and cruise missiles—shut down 50% of Saudi Arabia’s oil production.

That’s 5% of global oil supply.

While it’s unclear exactly what happened in the attack at this point in the now international investigation, one thing seems clear: The armed drones and cruise missiles hit their marks unscathed.

How could that be, considering well-armed Saudi Arabia has a number of air- and missile-defense systems available to it to defend against armed drones and cruise missiles?

There are a lot of factors at play here, but one of the obvious challenges to successfully defending against the threat of armed drones and cruise missiles—regardless of who launches them—is the limitations on radars.

Cruise missiles and drones have some distinct advantages that make them uniquely appealing to military planners—and, in some cases, such as the attack on the Saudis, a weapon of choice.

First, drones and cruise missiles can fly low to the earth, hugging the terrain en route to their targets. That essentially allows drones and cruise missiles to “hide” in the topography, making it difficult for opposing ground-based radars to detect them.

Low-level flight can mask the attacker’s approach.

Second, these weapons systems, which are often smaller in size than larger conventional aircraft or ballistic missiles, are harder for radar systems to detect due to their smaller radar cross-section.

If you can’t see the target, you can’t shoot it down.

Third, cruise missiles and armed drones are often mobile, meaning the threat can come from any number of directions. Indeed, cruise missiles can be launched from the ground, from aircraft, and from ships and submerged submarines.