The Saudi Oil Attack: Lessons for Israel

The attack by Iran or its proxies against the Saudi oil installations has provided numerous insights to decision-makers and military strategists in Israel. From the cunning moves of the enemy through the diplomacy of war to the alliance with our closest ally

Saudi Arabia displays weapon debris it says proves Iran was behind the attack on Saudi Aramco’s facilities (Photo: AP)

The attack against the Saudi energy installations has brought forward a number of aspects, with regard to both offense and defense, as far as the Israeli perspective is concerned. Admittedly, Saudi Arabia is not regarded as an enemy of Israel, but on the other hand, Israel does not have a peace agreement or formal diplomatic relations with Riyadh. In other words, this state of diplomatic limbo compels the decision-makers in Israel to prepare a plan of attack in the event that a confrontation with Riyadh should develop in the future for any reason. The Iranian attack against the Saudi oil installation can definitely teach us something about such preparations for the future.

This insight is by no means new, and it would be reasonable to assume that such plans have been revised every few years, as a matter of routine, since the establishment of the State of Israel. However, the recent incident calls for another revision. As far as defense is concerned, Israel, too, maintains energy infrastructures at sea and on land, in addition to strategic installations, and an incident like the one in Saudi Arabia can happen in our territory, too.

A Proportionate Attack against a Substantial Economic Engine

From an attacker’s perspective, the attack included a number of critical elements. Firstly, a primary economic engine of a state. The attack damaged one half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production, the kingdom’s primary revenue element. Admittedly, the Saudi oil company has installations in other countries, along with underground tanks for disaster/malfunction situations, but these measures were not enough to gain the oil consumers’ trust. The price of oil leaped by more than 10 percent, returning to its original level after ten days – and that was a relatively ‘mild’ attack. What would a more powerful attack do?

Unlike Saudi Arabia, Israel’s economy is not based on oil production, but rather on the exportation of technology products, agriculture, industry, etc. As an export-driven economy, the entrance and exit routes to and from the country provide the economic oxygen. In other words, an attack against the airports or seaports might paralyze the Israeli economy.

In addition to the physical damage inflicted on the infrastructures, insurance costs will increase and some airlines and/or marine transport companies might even ‘boycott’ Israel until things have quieted down. Accordingly, in the event that an attack staged against Israel’s entrance and exit routes, like the one staged in Saudi Arabia against the oil installations, should succeed, it might inflict substantial economic damage at the national level. Naturally, a direct attack against energy infrastructures offshore or on land will also inflict substantial economic damage.

False Flag Games

The second element was the use of remotely-controlled weapon systems so as to avoid attribution. Additionally, the use of such platforms is less costly than the manned fighter aircraft alternative. Another phenomenon involves the employment of non-state weapon systems, attributable to proxy organizations. In the case of the attack against Saudi Arabia, Iran had provided the Houthis with the weaponry well in advance, publicized it far and wide as Houthi weaponry and only when the public infrastructure enabling the execution of a false flag attack was created, did the Iranians actually stage the attack in Saudi Arabia, using those weapons. The fact that the Houthi Quds missile and the Iranian Soumar missile are almost identical was yet another factor that prevented the certain attribution of the attack to Iran.

Staging such an attack against a substantial economic center in the context of a policy of deliberate ambiguity enables the attack to minimize the probability of a counterattack, as well as the probability of economic or other sanctions imposed by the US, Europe, or international organizations. In the professional jargon, the attack may be regarded as a “false flag operation” – the process of executing an operation in someone else’s name. In the case before us, as stated, Iran staged the attack in the name of the Houthis so that in the event of a Saudi response, it will be directed against Yemen rather than against Iran.

Using the false flag tactic can contribute to offensive operational prowess owing to the reduced probability of a response. Nevertheless, it compels the initiating side to develop and maintain such relationships with non-state proxy groups, as Iran does. Does Israel employ the same tactic? To this day, no Israeli Kamikaze UAVs have been observed in the hands of a non-state element anywhere in the world. Israel operates according to the Wassenaar Arrangement/MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime). Consequently, to engage in such activity, should it be required, Israel would have to duplicate a “similar” but not identical weapon system. Alternately, there is the option of providing non-state organizations with weapon systems acquired from another country. Either way, this is a costly and complex activity, both operationally and diplomatically, but it has its rewards, as Iran has demonstrated through the recent incident.

Weapon Systems as a Player

The third element was the choice of a weapon system that produces a small signature during the launch. If Iran were to use surface-to-surface missiles against Saudi targets, the launch itself would have betrayed the attribution to dedicated launch-spotting US satellites. The use of a Kamikaze drone, cruise missiles, and missile-carrying UAVs does not leave substantial footprints, if any. Additionally, some of these systems may be launched from mobile platforms; namely – you launch and leap-frog to another location, thereby reducing even further the other side’s ability to spot the launching point. In conclusion, a great deal of thought had been invested in the attack against the Saudi targets, with regard to the selection of the attacking weapon system and obscuring the launching point as part of the objective of maintaining ambiguity.

Another important point was the selection of a weapon system that matches the desirable effect of economic/diplomatic damage. This operation clearly indicates that the Iranians did not want to trigger the outbreak of a war or to inflict long-term economic damage on Saudi Arabia. Accordingly, a very accurate weapon system was selected to punch holes in a small number of storage tanks and damage some of the production infrastructures. As stated, that damage caused the price of oil to rise for about ten days. To the same extent, Iran could have selected a weapon system that would have inflicted more substantial damage. Using a weapon system that would inflict tolerable damage (in the eyes of the enemy and the international community) enabled the conveyance of a message while facing a minimum risk of retaliation.

Holes in the Air Defense Setup

The fourth element was evading the Saudi air defense setup. If we were to assume that the Saudi air defense systems had not been shut off, as some theories maintained, then the attacker must have conducted a long-term study and analysis of the deployment of the air defense systems, their defense sectors and radius data, where the radars were directed, which systems were in use (in this case, at least three different system types), and who operated the systems (either a unified body or unsynchronized organs), and planned the attack route according to all of these parameters. According to open-source reports, the route of the attacking platforms was north to south, which rules out a launch from Yemen, as it is located to the south.

Some theories maintained that the airborne vehicles used in the attack possessed sufficient endurance to bypass the Saudi radars from the south and arrive from the north. This theory cannot be substantiated. The vehicles whose remnants were found do not possess such endurance. Another aspect of the incident in Saudi Arabia which is yet to be established involves the question of whether the attacker employed electronic warfare. A dedicated aircraft employed to jam the radars of the Saudi air defense setup may have participated in the attack. The implication, as far as Israel is concerned, is that a future enemy might employ a similar analysis methodology and similar weapon systems and resources in order to deceive the surveillance and interception setup of the IDF. The arsenals of both Saudi Arabia and Israel include Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries (although not necessarily of the same versions).

A report published by the Dado Center for Interdisciplinary Military Studies pursuant to the attack on Saudi Arabia suggested the establishment of a layered air defense layout, specifically designed for defending strategic sites, on the basis of a Russian or Chinese methodology. Such a layout should include tube weapon systems, missile systems, and electronic warfare resources.

The Ally is Important, but Not as Much as the Dollar

The fifth element of the incident in Saudi Arabia involves the way the alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia is conceived, as it has placed in doubt US military support in an emergency. Saudi Arabia is a well-established ally of the US, maintaining a lobby in Washington that is by no way inferior to the Jewish AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee). As such, Saudi Arabia has acquired substantial amounts of US-made defensive weapon systems, which failed to function during the attack. Did that failure stem from a faulty operation or the lack of ability? Open-source reports have provided no definite answer. For Israel, this remains a question for the future. The IDF acquires a substantial percentage of its weapon systems in the US. A substantial percentage of those systems had been developed in Israel through US funding, but in the future, the Americans may wish to push more of their own products on the IDF. As stated, both Israel and Saudi Arabia use the Patriot weapon system, for example.

Another point to be considered is a defense pact. Officially or unofficially, the recent incident in Saudi Arabia proved that the US would engage in military action only according to its own interests. Will the fate of Israel be any different from the fate of Saudi Arabia? That, too, remains to be seen. In Saudi Arabia, as in Israel, they have been trying to push the US to act against Iran, so far to no avail. It should be noted that this has not been the first time when Saudi oil installations were attacked by an Iranian proxy. Following the last incident, the US benefited from the soaring oil prices and from the fact that clients of Saudi oil now turned to US supply sources. The ally is important, but not as much as the dollar. The same conclusion applies to Israel, too. The American relationship with Israel is undoubtedly different from the relationship the White House has with Riyadh, but at the same time, there are many parallels that should be noticed in the wake of the recent incident.

In conclusion, the attack against the Saudi oil installations by Iran or organizations under its influence provides a variety of insights for decision-makers and military strategists in Israel. From the way of thinking of a clever, cunning enemy through the effective use of weapon systems for political goals and maintaining the element of deniability to the question of the alliance with the US. Today, all of these aspects are more relevant than ever to Israel’s national security owing to the hostile relations with Iran, which are likely to remain unchanged in the foreseeable future.