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Iran Is An Undisputed Drone Power, Full Stop

September 22, 2019

Via Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Defense.

Five days after the spectacular attacks on its Abqaiq and Khurais oil processing facilities, Saudi Arabia’s defense ministry held a press conference to prove that Iran rather than Yemen’s Houthis was behind it all. In the early morning of September 14, a Saturday, unidentified objects struck two sites critical to the Kingdom’s lucrative fossil fuel exports. The resulting fires, images of which dominated the news cycle, were contained in a few hours with no casualties reported.

A spokesperson for Ansar Allah, the official name of the Houthis, announced the drone strikes were retaliation for the Saudi war on Yemen. But Washington, DC was quick to blame Iran.

During the September 18 press conference organized by the Saudi defense ministry wreckage from the attacks were displayed before the assembled journalists as part of a briefing delivered by an officer. According to the Saudis it was Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), not the Houthis, who are responsible for the attacks that cut Saudi Aramco’s daily crude oil output by half. The unidentified objects turned out to be a salvo of cruise missiles accompanied by a kamikaze drone swarm.

The Saudis claimed seven Iranian land attack cruise missiles flew a north to south route on their way to Khurais, whose pipes suffered direct hits. Three of the “Ya Ali” cruise missiles failed to reach their targets and the Saudis retrieved an intact model that hasn’t been shown to the public. The damage on Abqaiq, located southwest of Khurais, was on a larger scale. The Saudis retrieved a handful of “flying wing” suicide drones and counted 18 total. At least 11 locations within Abqaiq were hit including three stabilization towers and multiple spheroids for separating oil and natural gas.

The Saudis identified the drones as “delta wing” models but their connections to the Houthis remains vague. Among the multitude of unmanned aircraft flown in Yemen since 2015 a specific model known as the “Rased” shared the strongest resemblance with the wreckage collected by the Saudis in Abqaiq. The mysterious Rased is a small propeller-driven aircraft with distinct winglets and a bulging nose.

While the cruise missiles that pummeled Khurais stands as a blatant act of war it merited no retaliation from the US or the GCC militaries. The performance of the Ya Ali missiles, having traveled nearly 500 kilometers to reach Khurais, puts to rest any doubts surrounding Iranian missile technology. If the IRGC claim they have missiles with intermediate ranges of 1,500 km and beyond, it’s probably true. The complete failure of Saudi air defenses to track and foil the incoming strikes is another embarrassment.

But the drone swarm that nearly took Abqaiq offline stands as the more significant breakthrough in 21st century aerial warfare. The IRGC just proved what had been theorized for the past decade, that small guided bombs (what the global arms industry calls “loitering munitions”) can wreak immense havoc on critical infrastructure. To date, there are few prior incidents of drone swarms used in an offensive role by militaries although ISIS flew weaponized commercial quadcopters during the battle for Mosul in early 2017. Almost two years since, the IRGC coordinated an operation involving vast distances and the element of surprise.

Considering Iran’s persistent efforts at enhancing its own military drone fleet and an open record of their extensive combat use the attacks on Saudi Arabia serve as an undeniable signal to its enemies: the Islamic Republic has a serious deterrent that has no effective countermeasures. Other apparent characteristics of this resurgent form of air power must be acknowledged. First, despite sanctions Iran is able to mass-produce various types of drones. Second, Iran is already a regional leader in unmanned systems. Third and last, Iran has forged ahead with a jet-powered UCAV and may soon be able to produce its own stealth drones.

The bottom line is Iran is prepared for a new kind of warfare using weapons and tactics its opponents can barely grasp.

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