Putting the attack on Saudi Arabia's oilfield in context

Putting the attack on Saudi Arabia's oilfield in context

If you got a cavity because your dentist said you weren’t flossing, you wouldn’t stop brushing your teeth. A multi-layered approach is what is needed to protect your mouth and the same theory applies to missile defense.

Despite this well-established military principle, the recent drone (and possibly cruise missile) attack on the state-owned Saudi Aramco oil processing facilities in Saudi Arabia is again spurring cries that missile defense systems are, in the age of drones, outdated.

This misguided sentiment could not be further from the truth.


Without those defensive systems in place, it stands to reason that the attacks on the Saudi oil fields may have been significantly worse.

The attack was particularly harmful as it cut Saudi Arabian oil production in half, which represents nearly five percent of all the oil produced globally. Tensions in the region have been particularly high considering the ongoing conflict in Yemen and the American diplomatic and trade pressure being put on Iran.

While the Houthi movement in Yemen originally claimed responsibility, American and Saudi intelligence officials believe that the attack was the handiwork of Iran.

Oddly enough, joining the chorus of critics of American missile defense systems was none other than Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinPutin says he's optimistic about working with Biden ahead of planned meeting Biden, Macron huddle on sidelines of G7 summit Biden must up the ante to get what he wants from Putin MORE, who — perhaps sarcastically — offered the sale of the Russian missile defense system, S-400. Not surprisingly, this notion was followed by open laughter from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Despite bad jokes from our sworn adversaries, at the moment, we know little for sure about the Aramco attack.  American, Saudi Arabian and surely other allied intelligence agencies are investigating to fully understand what happened, and how to be more prepared in the future.  As we wait to learn more about the exact circumstances of the attack, and specifically what types of weapons were used and how they were deployed, we should not rush to declare that missile defense systems have been suddenly rendered useless in the age of drones. It’s a compelling media narrative, but it is not grounded in reality.


To be clear, missile defense systems are not a one and done solution. Rather, layered, integrated air and missile defense systems are required to combat different types of incoming threats. Our Saudi Arabian allies are now perhaps learning this harsh reality and complexity of modern warfare.

The Patriot system was built to protect against high-flying targets such as jets or ballistic missiles, while drones and short range cruise missiles often fly too low to be detected. To be fully effective, Patriot demands integration with other systems like THAAD and Counter Unmanned Aircraft Systems. In the age of drones, we must also continue to develop technologies to detect small, unmanned aircraft and search for ways to better protect ourselves and our assets from these types of attacks.

Having spent time living in Saudi Arabia, under the protection of the Patriot missile system, I can attest first-hand to the importance of these defensive weapons. The American-made surface-to-air missile system is cutting edge technology that continues to save lives and protect infrastructure around the world.

Finally, we must accept that even the best missile defense system is not likely to be capable of stopping every single incoming projectile. In reality, the best missile defense system is to ensure that the weapons are not fired in the first place. In the meantime, America must wait to learn more about what happened in Saudi Arabia, and continue to develop layered missile defensive systems. It is a dangerous world, and staying ahead of our adversaries will, regrettably, be an arms race for years to come.

Gregory T. Kiley is a former senior professional staff member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and U.S. Air Force Officer.