Drone Revolution Threatens Eastern Canadian Oil Imports

The precedent set by the extremely successful drone and cruise missile attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil processing plant and Khurais oilfield on Sept. 14 has tremendous implications for eastern Canadian oil security.

Most foreign oil imported into the eastern half of Canada, with the notable exceptions of Norway and the U.S., is from countries located in war-torn regions such as the Middle East —  for example, Saudi Arabia and Iraq — or countries with long histories of civil strife such as Angola, Algeria, Mexico, Nigeria and Ivory Coast.

To be blunt, if Saudi Arabia can’t protect its prized oil infrastructure from non-state actors after spending tens of billions of dollars on state-of-the-art missile defense systems, these other countries don’t have a hope.

Drone revolution

Following a Houthi drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s Shaybah oilfield complex in mid-August, Scott Ritter, former U.S. Marine and U.N. weapons inspector — prior to the 2003 Iraq War he warned the Saddam Hussein regime no longer possessed weapons of mass destruction — argued drones had “come of age as a weapon of war” and become a “new threat to energy security.”

Drones, technically known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are now relatively cheap, highly available, easily modified, can carry armed missiles or simply a small explosive charge — in the case of “suicide” drones — have increasingly long flying range, and combined with GPS have become remarkably accurate. Following the Abqaiq attack, John Rood, U.S. under secretary of defense for policy, said drones now “fly more like cruise missiles.”

On the flip side, many oil and gas installations — such as oil refineries and oil processing plants — are highly combustible targets, which petroleum engineers and other employees work hard to keep from 'going boom' on a daily basis.

Ritter wrote: “The proliferation of drones is enabling non-state actors to gain access to a game-changing technology that can threaten energy installations in remote areas previously thought to be relatively secure due to their location.”

The Houthis targeted the Shaybah oilfield complex with 10 long-range suicide drones, causing a fire at a gas plant but, fortunately, no disruption to oil production. The field is located on the northern edge of the massive Empty Quarter desert, more than 1,000 kilometres from Houthi-controlled territory in northwestern Yemen.

Ritter concluded: “It is no longer a question of if there will be another drone-based attack on oil and gas production and storage facilities, but when.” Never have more prophetic, and at the same time understated, words been written.

Abqaiq attack

The attack on Abqaiq, the largest oil processing plant in the world, was the Big Kahuna, with the Khurais oilfield simply icing on the cake.

The combined attack briefly slashed Saudi crude oil production by 5.7 million bbls/d the largest disruption in oil market history. On Sept. 16, crude prices surged the most since the start of the 1991 Gulf War. Prices have since settled back on Saudi assurances that it will be able to meet its supply commitments, initially by selling crude from its large inventories, and then through supposedly rapid repairs to the two oil facilities.

The Houthis originally claimed they accomplished their pinpoint attack on Abqaiq and Khurais with just 10 drones, but it has since been reported it was a more sophisticated attack. The Yemeni rebels are now believed to have used cruise missiles as well. The U.S. and Saudi governments have since argued that the drone and missile attack originated from Iranian territory, near the Iraqi border, to the north.

The latter would explain why Saudi radar failed to detect the drones and missiles prior to impact, despite the kingdom’s multibillion-dollar investment on the U.S.-made Patriot air-defense system — and a relatively modest amount on a German Skyshield unit. The land-based radar supporting the U.S. system is directional, covering only 120 degrees. It has been reported based on satellite imagery that Saudi Arabia’s six battalions of Patriot batteries were facing south towards Yemen and east towards the Persian Gulf at the time of the attack.

Russia to the rescue?

Russian President Vladimir Putin has had a heyday with the failure of the U.S.-made Patriot system to protect Abqaiq and Khurais, claiming Russia’s S-400 advanced air-defense system, partnered with his country’s Pantsir-S1 system to handle low flying and short range missiles, could have saved the day. “The political leadership of Saudi Arabia just needs to make a wise state decision,” Putin said in Ankara at a meeting with Turkish and Iranian leaders in mid-September.

The Russian S-400 system certainly has some advantages over the Patriot system, while a layered approach — which the Saudi’s were attempting to accomplish with the Patriot and Skyshield systems —  is widely regarded the best way to protect against a wide range of aerial threats. Both the S-400 and Patriot systems were originally designed to combat ballistic missiles and airplane attacks, not low-flying cruise missiles and drones.

The key technical advantages of Russia’s S-400 system over American Patriot batteries are: missile range of 400 kilometres compared to 160 kilometres for Patriot; 360 degree radar capability; mobile radar masts for greater range to counter the curvature of the earth; ability to destroy targets moving twice as fast; and they can be ready for action in five minutes, compared to an hour for a Patriot battery.

However, it is important to note that Russia’s S-400 system has not been fully tested in battlefield conditions, whereas the Patriot system has intercepted ballistic missiles during the 1991 Gulf War, 2003 Iraq War, and Houthi ones recently by the Saudis. On the other hand, Russia has used the Pantsir system to counter drone strikes in northwestern Syria, although its success rate has been disputed.

Even if the S-400/Pantsir combination is as good as billed by the Russians, there is a simple and relatively low-cost way to overwhelm it: “swarms” of small drones converging from multiple directions, some designed to confuse or jam radar, some for reconnaissance, and others with munitions to simply outnumber relatively high-cost air defense systems.

This is a classic dilemma of warfare —  including guerrilla warfare. One side comes up with a good weapon and/or tactic, the other side comes up with a countermeasure, sending the original side back to the drawing board. As of now, the drone revolution has sent us back to the drawing board.

Prime targets

The prime target for drone attacks causing substantial disruptions to oil supply among the Top 10 sources of Canadian oil imports remains Saudi Arabia, including possible additional attacks on Abqaiq, despite the billions and billions the kingdom has spent on missile defense and the U.S. announcing plans to send additional Patriot batteries and American troops to operate them.

The New York Times recently reported that numerous U.S. government officials believe President Donald Trump’s failure to retaliate against Iran for the destruction of a sophisticated U.S. drone in June opened the door for the Abqaiq attack. Despite his fiery Twitter finger, Trump has shown a strong aversion to starting yet another U.S. war in the Middle East, and a retaliatory strike could easily escalate into a full-scale war with Iran,  and a truly massive disruption to global oil supplies, as that country’s leadership believe they are fighting for their survival.

The Iranian leadership views the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, including secondary sanctions against the country’s crude oil and condensate exports, as an existential threat to their regime. A British-led embargo against Iran’s oil exports in the early 1950s led to the overthrow of the democratically elected Mosaddegh government.

This has led Iran to provide the Houthis with an increasingly large and sophisticated arsenal of drones and missiles, and probably targeting information and other intelligence as well, to provide the Islamic Republic with at least “implausible deniability” regarding Houthi attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure.

Two more prime targets for substantial oil supply disruptions due to drone attacks among major sources of eastern Canadian oil, each of which have no missile defense systems whatsoever, are Mexico and Nigeria. Offshore oil platforms would appear to be ideal targets for drone attacks, by Niger Delta separatists and narco-terrorists, respectively.

To conclude, the Abqaiq drone attack likely marks the beginning of open season on oil infrastructure in unstable countries and regions around the world. To protect eastern Canadian oil security, the federal government needs to support an east-west crude pipeline now.