The success of Iran’s cruise missile and drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities on Sept. 14 cannot be blamed simply on Tehran catching the Saudi high command and US CENTCOM by surprise. Neither reckoned on an attack coming directly from Iran instead of a proxy. But this was not a failure of intelligence, but a fallacious conception.
Because of this misreading, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report, the US and Saudi military commands did not conceive of the possibility of Iranian missiles and drones penetrating Saudi air space and flying all the way to targets in the eastern oil fields and were therefore unprepared. Before the attack, the Iranians first tested Saudi preparedness in a series of unnoticed missile tests over the remote and desolate regions of Saudi Arabia. There was no response from US or Saudi air defense commands. After the attack, it was discovered belatedly that the Iranians had launched their attack through Saudi airspace near the Saudi-Iraqi-Kuwaiti border region. Since this part of the desert kingdom was far from the Saudi-Yemen front in the south and Riyadh, neither US nor Saudi radar networks were present there and it was never surveilled by satellites or spy planes.
In other words, Saudi Arabia’s eastern front opposite the Gulf and Iran was totally exposed to attack.
All the Iranian-backed drone attacks had been coming from the south, namely Yemen, except for one that should have – but did not – trigger an alert. In May, a UAV bombed two Saudi pumping stations west of Riyadh along the east-west pipeline to Yanbu on the western coast of the kingdom, disrupting the flow of at least five million barrels.
That drone came in from Iraq, i.e. the north. That one-time operation should have given US and Saudi intelligence services food for thought and alerted them to a possible change in Iran’s tactics. But no preparations were made for that eventuality.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report additionally that the Saudi air defense system is full of holes, as was revealed on Sept. 14. Communication and coordination is too slow between the Saudi command center and the batteries and they are not up to dealing with cruise missiles or even regular ballistic missiles. The Saudis are short of radar capable of tracking low-flying explosive drones. These flaws will take time to repair, a task made especially daunting even for the most advanced defense systems by the need to safeguard vast stretches of barren Saudi desert. Blocking this gaping hole in the oil kingdom’s air space would be a tall order even for the Russian S-300 and S-400 air defense systems, which Russian President Vladimir Putin hopes to sell to the oil kingdom during his visit to Riyadh next month.