After Action Report

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  1. #1
    WF Veteran Winston's Avatar
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    After Action Report

    After Action: Sept 2019 Saudi Refinery Attack

    (The following was compiled from open-source material, and is not intended as work product for any private or governmental agency. For informational purposes only)

    The unexpected drone / cruise missile strike against the Saudi oil refinery on September 14th was well executed and effective. The reason it was effective was simple: It followed the strictures of Sun Tzu. The Sauds didn’t expect that kind of attack, and the perpetrators knew a weak spot and exploited it.

    All parties are currently in the moment, preoccupied with the immediate effect of the attack. While the short term impact is worrisome, the longer term implications may just change the dynamics of low-intensity conflict and the threshold of escalation.

    To recap, the strike worked because the weapons used against Saudi Arabia hugged the ground in a nap-of-the-earth (NOE) profile. The Sauds fell into the trap of expecting a ballistic missile attack, using high trajectory projectiles. In fact, such weapons were previously used by Houthi rebels in Yemen against Saudi targets. In street fighting parlance, this is the classic “rope a dope”, where you jab one way only as a distraction, then deliver a punch from the opposite direction.

    The Saudi military has high tech radars and other equipment that are ineffective against small, slow moving, low heat signature targets. The Saudis had the money, training, defensible space and plenty of warning. Yet still failed. I would not say that this attack was preventable, but it could not be stopped with the current Saudi defense profile.

    The Saudi Arabian military is bifurcated in the same way most major western powers militaries are. To defend against near-peer adversaries, the Sauds invested in costly hardware such as M1 tanks and F-15 fighters. The fuel and upkeep costs (including training) for such weapon systems is staggering. Everything from airfield maintenance, surveillance systems and other logistical support is expensive. Could the Saudis hold off an attack from Iran, or even possibly some day Iraq? Yes, but it would be costly. It already is.
    The second tier of Saudi defense is used against irregular forces, and to date has had limited success. Their internal intelligence is good, yet obviously their external sources need work. The preparation for the September refinery attack surprised everyone. Either the execution was phenomenal, or the Saudis intel completely dropped the ball. Common sense dictates both were probable.

    The Saudis have not had a dedicated counter-insurgency infrastructure prior to their invasion of Yemen. Now, they are finding that that their current force structure is inadequate for such a mission. As a stop-gap, they have relied on increased use of precision munitions and high-altitude intel, both courtesy of the United States. As the US has learned in both Iraq and Afghanistan, without “boots on the ground”, no progress can be made.
    The Saudis have a problem in that they have a relatively small pool of citizens to recruit into the military, and the military is seen by most Saudi Arabians as a career of last resort. So despite good weapons and adequate training, their ground forces are mediocre at best.

    Prior to the refinery attack, it is not surprising how the Saudis were caught off guard. First, they were looking the wrong way (in two dimensions). They were looking up, and not down. And they were focused on Iran, not their surrogate. Second, their assets on the ground were of no help in regards to intelligence. In better trained Western armies, troops are encouraged to exert discretion and initiative. Did any Saudi Army troops see anything suspicious in Yemen? We don’t know. But we do know their hierarchy discourages lower level troops with access to key intel from reporting anything. And of course, the Saudis had the wrong equipment for the wrong job.

    It seems Yemen may just be a “red herring “ in this incident. While first reports indicated a mix of drones and cruise missiles were used in the attack, further analysis have clarified the probable weapons used. No drone wreckage was (allegedly) recovered, but pieces of Iranian Qud 1 cruise missiles were recovered. These missiles are relatively short range, and could not have been launched from Yemen. It is still possible that Houthis did participate in the refinery attack, but not exclusively.

    This brings up two potentially more troubling failures for the Saudi Military. The first is that the Iranians possibly flew in their weapons right under the noses of the Sauds. The second is that they launched the cruise missiles from ships in The Persian Gulf. The Iranians telegraphed their intent to do so months ago, when they were caught loading missiles onto a commercial vessel. The implications of such an intelligence and military failure are far reaching.
    Another disconcerting possibility is that the Iranians used their proxies in Iraq to launch the attack. Considering the US investment and ongoing involvement in Iraq, if the Iranians can exert that kind of influence there, it does not bode well for regional peace and security.

    It may not be possible for Saudi Arabia to prevent future attacks such as this, but there are ways they can certainly mitigate their probability. The Saudis F-15S Strike Eagle is a striped-down export version with poor ground radar. The ability to “look-down, shoot-down” is critical in today’s battle space. The Saudis must find a way to either upgrade their avionics, or look for another system (fighter). Also, according to the Defense Security Cooperation Agency “The Royal Saudi Air Force’s (RSAF) AWACS fleet provides early warning of potential airborne threats to Saudi Arabia and manages friendly airborne assets.” The omission of mentioning ground threats and targeting may be an error, but most likely the export AWACS is not configured to track ground hugging aerial targets such as drones or cruise missiles. Obviously, this needs to be revisited.

    In addition, there must be an emphasis on professional communication throughout the Saudi command structure, military and civilian. It is quite possible that intel pieces were available for assembly prior to the refinery attack, but were not shared by various intelligence entities. This includes the ground forces currently engaged in Yemen. Even if Yemen was not directly involved, it is probable that key intelligence clues were available there.
    There is actually a systemic divide between Saudi armed forces junior enlisted and officers. Their class-based society discourages junior soldiers from speaking up, and encourages senior warfighters not to listen. For Saudi Arabia’s sake, and possibly their future, this must change.

    Of course, Saudi Arabia’s failure is a US failure by extension. The Saudis rely on American intel assets (those which are cleared to share) to supplement their own. If the Iranians could execute this kind of assault against Saudi Arabia, they could also attack Gulf partner allies, including the US. With the possibility of sea-launched cruise missiles deployed from commercial vessels, the situation is volatile. While highly unlikely, it is possible for Iran to execute such an attack anywhere, including off the very long (unprotected) US coast.
    There is also no tactical limitation to Iran loading such missiles with chemical, biological or radiological payload. Even if not deployed, the threat of such an attack (now plausible) would change strategic thinking and possible future actions.

    This attack may have simply been a “one-off”, a desperate cry from a struggling regime being strangled by stifling sanctions. Or, this may have been a test. Iran has thousands of these cheap, but effective missiles. Once a successful strategy is employed, rarely is it not used again.

    It is now imperative for all the Gulf Partners to revisit their security plans, but first and foremost Saudi Arabia and the United States. The discussion of retaliatory strikes will not change the above-mentioned facts. Unless an all-out war is declared, these kind of state-sponsored low-intensity terrorist attacks will continue. And possibly increase. A political solution is not out of the question, but now is the time for warfighters and planners to prepare for the inevitable.

    Or, they could look the wrong way again. That’s always an option.
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    See Cazique Gregor MacGregor of details.

  2. #2
    For me easily the most enjoyable piece of yours which I remember reading. I didn't get triggered once. ... I'd question whether the current Saudi political regime could tolerate much initiative from the subordinate ranks. .... I wonder to what extent the Iranian military forces are brought under completely unified command. Especially at the interface with their surrogates. ........... My understanding of the pugilistic sense of rope-a-dope is completely different from what you suggest. To me it means laying on the ropes defensively and hoping your opponent will become fatigued from hitting you.
    A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking. Steven Wright


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