Category: Regions

U.S. Aircraft Carrier Transits Strait of Hormuz After Months of Loitering in Open Waters

After nearly six months of staying in open waters, the “Abraham Lincoln” Carrier Strike Group (CSG) completed a scheduled transit through the Strait of Hormuz (SH) into the Persian Gulf…

After nearly six months of staying in open waters, the “Abraham Lincoln” Carrier Strike Group (CSG) completed a scheduled transit through the Strait of Hormuz (SH) into the Persian Gulf on November 19. Carrier Air Wing Seven (encompassing over 30 F/A-18E/F SuperHornets and), the guided-missile cruiser Leyte Gulf, and guided-missile destroyers Bainbridge, Mason and Nitze are assigned to the strike group. 

This was the first SH transit for the Nimitz-class USS “Abraham Lincoln” (CVN-72) ever since it was hurried to the Middle East in May 5, 2019 in response to undisclosed intelligence warning of an imminent Iranian attack. However, after decades of American aircraft carriers sailing through the SH, the U.S. Navy made the decision to keep the CVN-72 in open waters for security reasons. Satellite imagery showed the CVN-72 loitering in a “tight operational box” in the North Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman and occasionally conducting port calls at Duqm, Oman for the past five months. 


The Iranian militaries regularly rehearse asymmetric tactics to trap and sink U.S. aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf in case of conflict. Aircraft carriers are particularly vulnerable when passing through the SH, which is 30 km at its narrowest. The recent decision to forward deploy CVN-72 into the enclosed Gulf could indicate that the threat posed by Iran decreased to an acceptable level for transiting the strait.

THE IRANIAN THREAT

The intelligence alerting to an imminent Iranian threat proved valid as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) staged numerous – convert and obvert – attacks and provocations against commercial vessels and Western navies transiting the local waterways and even raided petrochemical facilities onshore: 

  • On June 13, 2019 The Panama-flagged “KOKUKA COURAGEOUS” (KG) and the Marshall Islands-flagged “FRONT ALTAIR” (FA) were attacked with seaborne ordnance (limpet mines or anti-ship missiles) by an unconfirmed aggressor in the Strait of Hormuz (SH). The US Navy has since released a video, filmed by a P-8 maritime security aircraft, which allegedly shows an Iranian naval unit removing an unexploded limpet charge from the KG’s hull, likely in an attempt to destroy evidence. 

  • The covert attack on KG and FA took place nearly a month after four commercial vessels (two Saudi Arabian tankers, one Norwegian tanker, and an Emirati bunkering ship) were damaged using limpet mines in the Emirati port of Fujairah (Gulf of Oman). Both operations are believed to have been conducted by the IRGC-Navy’s special operations forces known as the “Sepah” specialized in underwater demolition, sabotage, search & destroy and unconventional operations – a loose equivalent of the U.S. Navy’s DEVGRU (or “SEALs”). 
  • On June 20, 2019, the IRGC-Aerospace Forces (IRGC-AF) downed a U.S. Global Hawk BAMS-D unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) near the SH using a “3rd Khordad” surface-to-air missile (SAM) system. Tehran accused the U.S. of violating its airspace while Washington claimed that it remained in international airspace. The Department of Defense drafted plans for retaliation against Iran’s coastal aerial defense systems and radars but the operation was later aborted by President Trump. The attack was a major milestone for Tehran. The IRGC proved that it can attack the U.S. and get away with it while also validating its indigenous defense technologies. 

  • On July 18, 2019, the USS Boxer downed an IRGC-AF UAV that closed within a threatening range, as the amphibious ship was transiting through the SH. The Marines on board the Boxer neutralized the threat through a “soft kill” approach (i.e. electronic attack) using the Light Marine Air Defense Integrated System (LMADIS). The day before, a U.S. Seahawk helicopter chased away an Iranian Navy Bell 212 helicopter that approached the Boxer shortly after it entered the SH. 
  • On July 20, 2019 the IRGC-Navy seized the British-flagged STENA IMPERO (SI) through an air-naval assault on the commercial ship near the SH. Tehran justified the operation as “tit-for-tat” after the British Royal Marines seized an Iranian-owned Panemese-flagged very large crude carrier (VLCC) vessel (“GRACE-1”) in Gibraltar found to be in breach of European Union (E.U.) oil embargo against the Syrian regime. Gibraltar authorities released the vessel (re-named as “ADRIAN DARYA-1”) in good faith on August 15, after receiving assurances from Tehran that it will not sell oil to Syria. However, DARYA-1 sailed to the Syrian coastline, where satellite imagery showed it unload oil via ship-to-ship (STS) transfer. Iran was late to reciprocitate and only released the SI on September 27, 2019. 

  • On September 15, 2019, the Saudi Aramco petrochemical facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais were the subject of a low-observable and clandestine air attack involving nearly 20 expandable-UAVs and cruise missiles. In comparison to the countless other missile attacks mounted by the IRGC’s Yemenite partner force, “Ansar Allah” (Houthi) on Saudi/ Emirati oil facilities in the past, the September 15 raid was conducted directly by IRGC elements, and likely from Iranian territory. 

TF-IMSC

The growing asymmetric maritime threat posed by Iran prompted Washington to establish a multinational operational task force that would police the Middle Eastern seas and ensure the freedom of navigation in the region. The Task Force (TF) is known as the “International Maritime Security Construct” (IMSC) and encompasses the United Kingdom, Australia, the Kingdom of Bahrain, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, besides the U.S. TF-IMSC is headquartered with the U.S. Fifth Fleet command center in Manila, Bahrain. 

While the TF-IMSC is likely in the lengthy process of joint force integration, the CVN-72 is expected to project power and deter attacks on commercial shipping until its substitute, the USS Harry S. Truman” (CVN-75)  enters the Fifth Fleet area of operations.

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Kobani Residents Protest Russian-Turkish Patrols, Coalition Secures Syrian Energy Infrastructure

Locals from Kobani (Aleppo province, Syria) threw stones and eggs at the joint Turkish-Russian patrols, videos show. The motorcade involved Russian military police “Tigr” armored infantry vehicles and armored personnel…

Locals from Kobani (Aleppo province, Syria) threw stones and eggs at the joint Turkish-Russian patrols, videos show. The motorcade involved Russian military police “Tigr” armored infantry vehicles and armored personnel carriers as well as Turkish army “Kipri” mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, which patrolled along the frontier at the outskirts of Kobani. The crowd gathered in Alishar village to express their displeasure towards the Russian and Turkish presence in northern Syria and the agreement between the two countries. 

TURKISH-RUSSIAN JOINT PATROLS

The agreement brokered between Ankara and Moscow on October 23, 2019, recognizes Turkey’s 32-km deep “safe zone” between Tel Abyad and Serekanyie/Ras al Ayn and calls for joint military patrols along the Turkish-Syrian border 10 km outside the safe zone, with the exception of Qamishli city.

The Russian-Turkish agreement fills the security vacuum created by the departure of U.S. forces from northern Syria. Following the withdrawal of the nearly 1,000 U.S. forces from their bases in the area, Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and Russian armored and mechanized columns moved towards the frontline positions in northern Syria to block the advance of Turkish-backed rebels.

ENHANCED FORCE PROTECTION FOR COALITION FORCES
Despite President Trump’s hasty pullout order, the U.S. will enhance the remaining forces to secure Syria’s petrochemical energy infrastructure along the Mid-Euphrates River Valley (MERV) and the Iraqi border. Amid concerns that the U.S. military forces in the area are inadequate to fend off major enemy assaults, the White House approved the deployment of a U.S. Army armoured brigade combat team (ABCT) battalion to eastern Syria.

The ABCT was supplied by assets from the U.S. Army’s Operation “Spartan Shield,” which are deployed in Camp Arifjan (Kuwait) for contingency operations. On November 1, 2019, the 30th ABCT, nicknamed “Old Hickory,” re-deployed with M2A2 “Bradley” fighting vehicles into eastern Syria to provide much needed force protection for the small U.S. contingent based in the remote “Green Village” housing complex and the Conoco oil field, Deir ez-Zor province.

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Pentagon Plans Tank Deployment to Eastern Syrian Oil Fields

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has prepared plans to enhance the U.S. military presence in eastern #Syria. The White House aims to secure Syria’s largest oil and gas fields…

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has prepared plans to enhance the U.S. military presence in eastern #Syria. The White House aims to secure Syria’s largest oil and gas fields (al-Omar and Conoco) against resurgent ISIS cells and the pro-governmental forces, by sending half of an U.S. Army armoured brigade combat team (ABCT) battalion.

OPERATION “SPARTAN SHIELD”

The ABCT will be supplied by assets from the Army’s Operation “Spartan Shield,” which are deployed in Camp Arifjan, Kuwait for contingency operations. The armoured “package’ will likely consist of 20-30 tanks (e.g. M1 Abrams) or infantry fighting vehicles (e.g. Bradley, Stryker) that will provide much needed force protection for the small U.S. contingent in eastern Syria. Being engineered as among the most survivable and heavily armored vehicles in existence, the Abrams tank is built to withstand a high degree of enemy fire (tank rounds, RPGs, rockets and anti-tank missiles). Abrams tanks can also carry reactive armor, material used to explode incoming enemy fire in a matter that protects the chassis and crew of the vehicle itself.

Despite the hasty withdrawal from northern Syria, President Donald J. Trump plans to maintain the few existing U.S. combat outposts in Deir ez-Zor and in the 55-km exclusion zone (al-Tanf garrison). However, the DoD is concerned that the small military presence in the area is inadequate to repeal major enemy assaults.



EXTERNAL SECURITY

Besides force protection, external security is also precarious, as it is largely outsourced to the poorly trained Bakhara tribesmen of the Deir ez-Zor Military Council (the SDF’s local affiliate). The battle-hardened YPG militia has a residual presence in the province.

Close air support readiness and availability has also decreased as Army “Apache” attack helicopters were recently removed from northern Syria. Air assets, now based in Iraq or the U.S. Central Command area, will take significantly longer to respond in the future.

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NE Syria: YPG and SNA Comply with Turkish-American Ceasefire

Vice President Mike Pence announced that the US and Turkey reached a deal to suspend the Turkish military offensive in Northeastern (NE) Syria. After tense negotiations in Ankara, Turkish President…

Vice President Mike Pence announced that the US and Turkey reached a deal to suspend the Turkish military offensive in Northeastern (NE) Syria. After tense negotiations in Ankara, Turkish President Erdogan agreed to a 120 hour long ceasefire on Thursday. The ceasefire grants the Kurdish “Peoples’ Protection Units” (or YPG) 120 hours to withdraw 32 km from the Turkish border. 

The YPG and the “Syrian National Army” (SNA), which is spearheading Turkey’s ground offensive in NE Syria, both stated that they will respect the agreement. James Jeffrey, the US Special Envoy for Syria, said that the agreement will be focused on “those areas where the Turks had penetrated into northeast Syria.” This suggests that the buffer zone will encompass the territory between Tel Abyad and the outskirts of (or the city of) Serekaniye on an east-west axis and reach 32 km south up to the M4 highway. President Erdogan has committed to stop the Turkish-Rebel incursion in NE Syria, after SNA forces will occupy this area.  



While the agreement brings a welcome pause to the violent clashes along the Turkish-Syrian border, it essentially validates most of Erdogan’s military objectives in the area. The aim of Turkey’s Operation “Peace Spring” is to remove the YPG from the border area and to secure a buffer zone, where 3 million Syrian refugees will be relocated. Since the operation commenced a week ago, the SNA has struggled to break through YPG defenses. The agreed withdrawal of the Kurdish militia from the area will allow the SNA to make major advances without encountering heavy resistance. On the upside, YPG has a chance to safely evacuate Serekaniye, a border town besieged by Turkish artillery and SNA infantry. In the meanwhile, the Turkish Armed Forces will likely seek to further entrench themselves in the area by building combat outposts and defensive fortifications. 

The international community fears that the Turkish-backed SNA will commit war crimes and displace the Kurdish population in the area, as seen during Operation “Olive Branch” in northwestern Aleppo province. The SNA is coalition of Arab and Turkmen Sunni armed opposition groups that were in the past loosely known as the “Free Syrian Army.” Despite the re-branding, the SNA essentially remains a hotchpotch of hardline Islamist groups. 

The YPG is the military wing of the Syria-based Democratic Union Party (or PYD) and provided for the vast majority of fighters and the entire senior command of the U.S-trained and equipped Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The PYD has undeniable links to the PKK, a Kuridish separatist and social-revolutionary militia engaged in a violent insurgency against the Turkish state. During the Coalition’s fight against ISIS, the YPG received sophisticated weapons and training from the US military. Ankara fears that these new capabilities could be used to attack Turkey. Due to this concern, it is unlikely that Turkey will put a stop to military action against the YPG after the agreement is implemented. 

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US Out, Assad In: Syrian Army to Enter Northern Syria

As part of an agreement between the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Assad regime, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) will secure the cities along the Manbij-Malikyah line. According…

As part of an agreement between the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Assad regime, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) will secure the cities along the Manbij-Malikyah line. According to multiple local reports, SAA soldiers have already moved from their positions in Al-Arimah into Manbij, after US troops vacated Aleppo province. If confirmed, the initial SAA presence in Manbij is likely residual and symbolic and therefore exposed to attacks from the Turkish-backed Syrian Armed Opposition (TSAO), which has gathered in Jarabulus north of the city. Online footage confirms that Syrian troops have taken defensive positions in Hasakah and Qamishli. 

Syrian Civil War map by T-Intelligence

The SDF finalised the deal with the Assad regime after US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced that the remaining US troops in Northern Syria will leave the area, following intelligence reports that Turkey will extend its incursion south and west of the agreed “security mechanism” safe area. 

All US forces in northern Syria are expected to retreat down the Mid-Euphrates River Valley (MERV) to eastern Syria (Deir ez-Zor and southern Hasakah province). Yesterday the TSAO seized central parts of the M4 highway, disrupting the critical road infrastructure between Manbij and the Iraqi border. The US forces were therefore increasingly isolated and exposed to attacks from the rebel groups. The US troops that were caught in “danger close” fire from Turksih artillery on Saturday have reportedly already withdrawn. 


Four days into the offensive, TSAO groups have posted photos proving the seizure of the border town of Tel Abyad from the Kurdish-led SDF. Sporadic air strikes and cross-border artillery attacks continue to indiscriminately pound the entire border region, targeting both rural and urban areas. 

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Turkish “Danger Close” Fire on US troops in Syria

US troops in the vicinity of Kobani (Ayn al Arab) came under artillery fire from Turkish positions around 9 AM (local time) on October 11, 2019.  Turkey used T-155 Firitna…

US troops in the vicinity of Kobani (Ayn al Arab) came under artillery fire from Turkish positions around 9 AM (local time) on October 11, 2019. 

Turkey used T-155 Firitna 155mm self-propelled howitzers and/or 120mm mortars to attack SDF/YPG positions on Mashtenour hill (SE Kobani), our assessment finds. The Turkish artillery fire fell several meters from a Forward Operating Base (FOB) that hosts US special forces. The incident was confirmed by the Department of Defense spokesperson, who said that Turkey has the exact grid coordinates (MLRS) of all US position in NE Syria. 

Ankara confirmed the shelling of the area, but firmly rejected any accusation of “danger close” fire on US positions. Turkish artillerymen have shelled Mashtenour hill in response to an YPG mortar attack on its military base in Mursitpinar (south of Suruc) on the Syrian border. 

As stated before, US forces have not withdrawn from NE Syria. Around 50 US troops retreated from four borderline observation posts between Tel Abyad and Seri Kane to larger bases further south. US forces remain in the immediate vicinity and (sometimes) in the line of fire of the Turkish-rebel operation #PeaceSpring. The sustained US presence ensures that the Turkish ground offensive will NOT EXTEND beyond the “security mechanism” area to encompass major locations such as Kobani, Manbij, Qamishli and Ain Issa. 

Tactical overview on the Kobani-Mursitpinar border area by T-Intelligence



It is highly unlikely that Turkey will be satisfied with the limited “security mechanism” area. Turkish forces will likely try to intimidate/harass US troops in NE to withdraw further south, clearing additional territory. President Erdogan envisions a buffer zone that stretches along the entire Turkish border.

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Turkey Begins Northern Syria Offensive

In preparation for a ground assault, Turkish F-16s and artillery units have attacked more than ten positions controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria on October 9,…

In preparation for a ground assault, Turkish F-16s and artillery units have attacked more than ten positions controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria on October 9, 2019. The SDF returned fire with rocket attacks on Turkish border towns. 

Despite international pressure, Turkish President Erdogan has announced that the Turkish military and the “Syrian National Army” (SNA)” will cross the Syrian border in the next hours. The SNA is a coalition of Turkish-backed Sunni-Arab and Turkmen rebel groups that already spearheaded Turkey’s previous military operations in Syria. 

The Turkish-SNA operation “Peace Spring” aims to establish a 30 km deep “safe zone” at the Turkish-Syrian border, where millions of Syrian refugees could be repatriated. The initial stage of the advance will, however, only encompass the stretch of Syrian land between Tel Abyad and Ras al Ayn, up until the M4 highway, as US forces still remain outside this area. The US military has only vacated four observation posts on the borderline and withdrawn to bases south of the M4 highway. 

Approximate tactical situation in northern Raqqa and Hasakah provinces, Syria via T-intelligence



In the past 72 hours, Turkey has amassed hundreds of SNA militiamen from Northern Aleppo and deployed artillery units to the Turkish border towns of Akçakale and Ceylanpınar but also reinforced their positions in Jarabulus, Azzaz and northern Manbij (Syria). The Tel-Abyad-Ras-al-Ayn line will likely prove to be an easy capture, since the Kurdish YPG has demilitarized the area under the US-Turkish “security mechanism” (SM) that was recently negotiated. The SM calls for the establishment of a limited 15 km deep buffer zone policed by combined American-Turkish military patrols. 

Commander-in-chief and President Donald Trump has ordered the 2,500 US troops in Syria not to intervene on behalf of any side.  While the US military will not defend the SDF, the Department of Defense has disconnected the Turkish military from their ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) feed and Air Tasking Order to make sure that the TSNA will not profit from US intelligence. 



Due to the rapidly deteriorating security environment in northeastern Syria, the Department of Defense will likely recommend to withdraw US troops further down the Middle Euphrates River Valley. In this case, the YPG/SDF will likely make a stance along the M4 highway, leading to a heads-on confrontation with TSNA forces. 

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Iran Used Cruise Missiles, Suicide Drones in Saudi Attack

During a press briefing in Riyadh, the Saudi Defense Ministry revealed wreckage recovered after the air attack on the petrochemical facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais. The physical evidence suggests that…

During a press briefing in Riyadh, the Saudi Defense Ministry revealed wreckage recovered after the air attack on the petrochemical facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais. The physical evidence suggests that the weapons used in the attack were a mix of Iranian land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) and expendable unmanned aerial vehicles (XUAVs). According to the Defense Ministry, eighteen XUAVs struck the Abqaiq oil facility. Three LACMs malfunctioned and crashed in the Saudi desert en route to Abqaiq. The raid on Khurais oil field was conducted by four LACMs.


KINETIC PLATFORMS

LACM. The Saudis identified the LACMs as the Iranian-made “Ya-Ali.” With an estimated engagement range of 700 km, the Ya-Ali carries a 200 kg warhead. However, the majority of experts agree that the wreckage bears more similarity with the Iranian “Soumar” LACM or the “Quds-1”, a re-branded version of the Soumar operated by the Houthis. 


While all LACMs seem to have been inspired by the Russian-made Kh-55 Granat (NATO Reporting name: Kent), which was smuggled by the IRGC from Ukraine in 2001, the three missile-types differ in design and mechanical features. Compared to the Ya-Ali, the Quds-1’s rocket booster is smaller and its engine is not internally carried, but situated on the airframe. While similar at first sight, the Quds-1 and Soumar differ in size and airframe design (aft fuselage, stabilizers, exhaust, wings). The two missiles also use different engines. The Quds-1 is believed to be powered by the Czech-made TJ100 turbojet propeller or a replica of it. Both the Quds-1 and the Ya-Ali are believed to share the same 700 km operational range, roughly half of their larger Soumar “cousin.” 

Although operated by the Houthis, the Quds-1 is undeniably linked to Iran’s evolving family of LACMs. Analysts believe that Iran is secretly producing simplified knockoffs of its missile systems for exclusive use by its proxies. This allows the IRGC to equip its allies with high-end conventional capabilities, while maintaining political deniability. 

UAV. The Saudi Defense Ministry identified the loitering munition used in the Abqaiq attacks as “Iranian Delta Wave UAVs.” The IRGC-AF have been secretly working on a myriad of UAV programs for the past decade. While numerous operational and experimental airframes have been unveiled in private or semi-private events for government officials, there is sparse information regarding the Delta Wave XUAV. 

As per ARS Technica: “drone wreckage including one described as an Iranian Delta Wave UAV. The design resembles earlier delta-winged “kamikaze” drones built by Iran.” Vivian Nereim/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Analysts have found that the Delta Wave UAV is based on the IRGC’s “Toofan”, an expandable/ “suicide” UAV capable of 250 km/h top speed for one hour. However, the variants used in the Khurais and Abqaiq attack were smaller with potentially “stealthier” characteristics. 


DELIVERY AND EXECUTION

The relatively medium range of both the LACMs and XUAVs add extra credibility to American, Saudi, and  independent OSINT findings that the attack did not originate from Yemen, but from the north, with Iran’s southwestern province as the likeliest launching point. 

The kinetic solution as well as the flight path proved ideal to bypass Saudi air defenses. The Iranian weapons flew low (not higher than 200 meters) and slow, blending with ground clutter, which likely caused radar dopplers to filter them out. To support the attack, the IRGC-AF have certainly obtained actionable intelligence regarding the radio-electronic order of battle of the Royal Saudi Air Force in Abqaiq and Khurais and of US installations in Kuwait, using both human reportings and geospatial means. With Kuwait as the likely intermediate airspace, the IRGC gambled that local US air defenses were either inactive/idle or subject to disadvantageous rules of engagement (force protection only). 

Open-source commercial satellite imagery dating from June, 2019 shows that the AN/MPQ-53 sensor near Abqaiq was pointed towards the southwest. In addition, the IRGC-AF likely collected critical information on whether the point air defense installations such as the “Shahin” and “Oerlikon” (aided by Skyguard radars) near Abqaiq were active. 

Using a custom script in Sentinel-1 SAR multi-temporal imagery, OSINT analysts have found that none of the Saudi AN/MPQ-53/65 radars were active on Saturday (September 16, 2019). VH-VV polarization and ascending-descending orbit convergence show that only Bahraini, Qatari and Emirati PATRIOT systems and some (non-AN/MPQ-53/65 ) radars in Kuwait also were “online.” 


For more on the September 14 Air Attack on Saudi Arabia consult our preliminary attack path assessment and the initial after-action briefing.

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This is How Iran Bombed Saudi Arabia [PRELIMINARY ASSESSMENT]

American and Saudi investigators have concluded that the air attack on the Abqaiq and Khurais petrochemical facilities originated directly from Iran – not Yemen or Iraq – sources say.  The…

American and Saudi investigators have concluded that the air attack on the Abqaiq and Khurais petrochemical facilities originated directly from Iran – not Yemen or Iraq – sources say

The cruise missile and/or drone attack was likely staged from Iran’s Khuzestan province. As unidentified flying objects (UFOs) were spotted in Kuwait just before the attack, the kinetic platforms likely avoided the Persian Gulf, which is heavily monitored by the US Navy, and exploited a gap in Saudi Arabia’s SAM deployments. As PATRIOT radars (MPQ-53/65) have a 120 degree coverage (not 360 degrees), they were likely pointed towards the southwest and east to cover threats from Yemen and the Persian Gulf, leaving the northern approach largely exposed. When the (presumed) low-flying, slow moving and small RCS (radar cross-section) kinetic platforms entered “denied airspace” at the envelope edge of Saudi air defense systems, it was too late for the PATRIOTs detect the threat and react. 

Hypothetical path of Iranian air attack on Saudi oil facilities, visualized by T-Intelligence.

Even if the MPQ-53/65 radars were pointed northwards, the PATRIOT is inadequate to intercept small drones and tactical missiles, as it is primarily an anti-aircraft and (secondary) ballistic missile defense system. Modern short-range air defense systems (V/SHORAD) are the adequate aerial defense assets for such threats, preferably aided by networked sensors and including airborne coverage from AWACS planes. While the Shahine and Skyguard SHORAD systems were guarding Abqaiq, they have a 20 km engagement range against normal sized aircraft. As the Iranian kinetic “package” consisted of low-observable munition, the engagement range was much less shorter. Alternatively, the “package’s” terrain-hugging flight profile could have masked it with the “ground clutter” or its slow speed would have filtered it out on the radar doppler. However, Saturday’s attack was as much an air defense error as it was an intelligence failure. 

As Washington and Ryad disagree on how to retaliate against Iran, an official joint announcement blaming the IRGC for the attack has been repeatedly postponed. President Donald Trump is engaged in a re-election campaign and knows that the US public would not support a new conflict or military action in the Middle East. Therefore the White House opposes the US military spearheading a kinetic retribution against Iran. This leaves Saudi Arabia to either form a coalition of the willing with other Gulf states, an exhaustive and unlikely endeavour, or to act alone, which is not an option for the monarchy.



With the critical 72-hour time window for retaliation closed, it is possible that Iran might walk away unsanctioned for the “war-opening” attack on Abqaiq and Khurais. Absent red-lines, Tehran will potentially feel emboldened to prosecute other strategic targets, such as Saudi desalination plants or US bases in the Middle East. 


UPDATE September 19, 2019 – Saudi officials have showcased the wreckage recovered from the Abqaiq and Khurais attacks, confirming that the air attack was conducted by Iranian Delta Wing drones and cruise missiles. US Intelligence sources also confirmed that the attack was mounted from Iran’s southwestern Khuzestan province and that the weapons were programmed to avoid the Persian Gulf. 

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[UPDATED] Saudis To Retaliate After Iranian-Backed Drone Attack

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has announced that it is devising retaliation plans for the drone attacks on its oil refineries, which have been claimed by the Iranian-backed Houthi militants…

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has announced that it is devising retaliation plans for the drone attacks on its oil refineries, which have been claimed by the Iranian-backed Houthi militants in Yemen. In a call with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman on Saturday, United States President Donald Trump offered support for Saudi self-defense. 

According to the Houthis, the dawn attack on Saturday was carried out by ten unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) launched from Yemen and targeted the Aramco oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais. The largescale attack caused major explosions and forced Aramco to cease production at the two facilities. With oil production suspended, Aramco lost halfof its crude output (5.7 million barrels per day), leading to a five percent reduction in global oil supply. 

As Saudi Arabia produces around 9.85 million barrels of oil per day, the supply reduction has caused concerns on the global energy markets. Energy experts warn that the recent attack could lead to a slight surge in oil prices. The Saudi Energy Ministry has nevertheless assured that the disruption will be offset by supplies from Saudi inventories. The attack represents a serious blow for Aramco, since the company is currently preparing its stock market debut and international listing.  

Abqaiq is pivotal for Saudi energy operations, as the facility processes crude oil from the world’s largest oil field (Ghawar) and redirects it to the world’s biggest offshore oil loading facility (Ras Tanura) and to export terminals on the Red Sea coast. Khurais, the other target, is Saudi Arabia’s second largest oil field, which is responsible for the production of over 1 million barrels of oil per day. 

While the Houthis have been conducting attacks on Saudi energy infrastructure for months and have made extensive use of Iranian supplied missiles and UAVs, their claim to the recent attack is disputed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as well as many open-source intelligence analysts, who point towards Iraq instead. Photos on social media allegedly show the remains of an Iranian-made Quds-1 or Soumar cruise missile on Saudi soil. Analysts believe the missile was launched from southern Iraq due to its proximity to the two Saudi installations. Other sources claim that a UAV violated Kuwaiti airspace on Saturday and loitered around 250 meters above the Dar Salwa presidential palace.

The Iraqi government was quick to deny that its territory was used to attack the Saudi installations. However, this would not be the first attack on the Kingdom that was launched from Iraq. US intelligence has, for example, found that a UAV raid on a Saudi pipeline on May 14, 2019 was launched from Iraq instead of Yemen. Iraq hosts a myriad of Shiite militias, which are trained, sponsored, and coordinated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force (IRGC).

Regardless where the attack originated, Iran remains the shadow culprit. The attack on the Aramco oil facilities will likely set the peace negotiations between the Arab Coalition and the Houthis back and further escalate the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. While the US remains committed to Saudi security, the Trump administration does not seem willing to retaliate on behalf of Riyadh. Instead, the White House has provided strong political support and military aid to Saudi forces to take matters into their own hands.

The Saudis could either re-intensify the air campaign against Houthi targets in Yemen, conduct covert operations against IRGC-backed elements in Iraq, or directly prosecute Iranian offshore oil facilities in the Persian Gulf.


Read our update on the developing situation

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