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Day of the drone: Saudi oil attacks signal the future of warfare 

India Today , Sep 19, 2019

One of 21st century's most significant military events unfolded in eastern Saudi Arabia, bordering the Persian Gulf, in the early hours of September 14. Over a dozen drones launched by the Houthis, an Iran-backed Yemeni rebel group, slammed into the giant onion-shaped spheroids used to process crude oil in Abqaiq, the world's largest crude oil processing facility, and Khurais, the kingdom's second-largest oil field. The attacks on Saudi Arabia's state-owned oil producer Saudi Aramco, triggered blazing fires, leading to the refinery shutting down. The blows aimed at striking at the heart of the world's biggest oil producer triggered an oil shock. Saudi Arabia halved oil production, leading to a 10 per cent surge in global oil prices-the fastest in over a decade. It sent ripples in the capitals of all major oil-consuming economies, from Washington DC to Beijing and New Delhi, and left investors worried about the impact on the world's largest initial public offering-for Saudi Aramco.

Military analysts have long warned about the future of warfare with swarms of weaponised drones, targeting not just aircraft, tanks and soldiers, but also hitting vital installations such as airbases, logistics hubs and ammunition dumps. That future is now upon us. An attack costing not more than $150,000 (assuming each drone cost $10,000), put together by the Houthis, wreaked damage worth billions.

It was not the first attack of its kind, though. On January 6, 2018, a swarm of 13 armed, fixed-wing drones of unknown origin attacked the Hmeimim air base and the Tartus naval base used by Russian forces in Syria. The strikes, believed to be the world's first UAV swarm attacks, were repulsed by Russian forces, who reported similar attacks in April, June and August last year, in which a total of 47 drones were shot down. The combat drone made its debut over Afghanistan in October 2001 when a CIA 'Predator' UAV fired a Hellfire missile at a Taliban target. This marked the start of a 15-year campaign in which drones carried out over 400 strikes against Al Qaeda and Taliban targets in the Af-Pak region.

Military experts will study the Saudi Arabian attack more closely because of the potential for other non-state actors to replicate it. Just how the Houthis managed to fly drones from their bases in the southern end of the Arabian peninsula to the north-eastern corner, over 1,500 km away, completely undetected by the Saudi air defences, is a mystery.

The Houthis, who have been battling a Saudi Arabia-UAE military coalition for five years in one of the world's bloodiest civil wars, has turned into an unlikely theatre for drone warfare with both sides fielding UAVs. In recent months, the Houthis have fielded a bewildering array of cruise and ballistic missiles many of them believed to be copies of Iranian weapons and explosive-fitted 'kamikaze' drones designed to explode on impact. In 2018, the Houthis are believed to have carried out at least three attacks on Abu Dhabi airport using drones. In recent months, they have showered Saudi Arabian cities with missiles and drones. Both Saudi Arabia and UAE have used Chinese supplied drones against the Houthis in Yemen.

US analysts identified at least 17 points of impact on the Abqaiq refinery. Saudi Arabian officials said on September 19 that the attacks involved 18 drones and seven cruise missiles including Iranian-origin Delta UAVs.

Over 150 years ago, the Confederate submarine, H.L. Hunley, unleashed a terrifying new engine of war-the torpedo-armed submarine-when it attacked and sank a Union warship, the USS Housatonic, during the American Civil War.

The September 14 attack on Saudi Arabia, by far the most effective in the history of Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) combat, is another such watershed. It marks a new dawn in the age of warfare using inexpensively mass-produced UASs to inflict greater damage and will, correspondingly, see investment in counter-UAS systems. In April 2019, Transparency Market Research, a global market research agency, estimated that the global counter-UAS market would touch $1.2 billion by 2025. This may possibly be because legacy air defence systems are incapable of tackling drones.

Saudi Arabia's US-supplied Patriot-3 air defence missile shield, for instance, failed to detect or intercept these drones. A point Russian president Vladimir Putin made when he offered to supply Riyadh Moscow's formidable S-400 air defence systems.

Back home, the Reliance Industries-owned Jamnagar refinery, the world's largest, is less than 400 km from the Indo-Pakistan border. The facility processes 1.24 million barrels of oil each day and is ring-fenced by air force bases in Bhuj, Nalia and Jamnagar. How effective would these be against a drone swarm? These are questions Indian defence planners would, no doubt, be mulling over.

An August 1 report released by EY, in collaboration with the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), highlighted the need to deploy counter-UAS systems in India. 'As the market for drone applications is expected to touch $100 million by 2020, instances of misuse of this technology by nefarious entities also heighten the security risk posed by them,' warns the report. The report identified risks to privacy, security and penetration as being typically posed by UAS technology and applications.

Last August, explosives-armed drones were used to attack Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro. While he survived the attempt, it highlighted the security risks posed by weaponised drones. The security details of several world leaders are now routinely equipped with drone guns, bazooka-sized weapons that can disrupt and destroy rogue UAVs before they can cause damage. Companies are now working on counter-UAS systems capable of detecting, tracking and intercepting UAVs. Some of the technologies for interdicting rogue drones include hacking into the drone's communication network, jamming it and physically neutralising it. In any case, the day of the drone has finally arrived and warfare will never be the same again.