Aramco attacks remind us about 'defense in depth'

Aramco attacks remind us about 'defense in depth'
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Over the course of my 31-year career as a nuclear power-trained Navy Surface Warfare Officer and later as Deputy Secretary of Defense for Homeland Security Integration, I became quite familiar with the term “defense in depth.” 

In the nuclear world that equates to “multiple independent and redundant layers of defense” so that “no single layer, no matter how robust, is exclusively relied upon.” The same concept is easily applied to modern warfare across the board, such as I experienced as a Destroyer Squadron Commander. When it came to protecting an aircraft carrier, no single weapon or platform was an effective way to get it done.

Which brings us to the stunning vulnerability we saw with the devastating attacks on the Aramco oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais in eastern Saudi Arabia last month. While Yemen’s Houthi rebels originally claimed responsibility from the southern reaches of the Arabian Peninsula, American and Saudi intelligence officials quickly discerned that Iran played a large, if not singular, role in the attack. The damage sustained from a north, northwest direction certainly points to drones and low-flying cruise missiles launched from Iran’s southwestern corner itself.


This crippling oil field attack was particularly harmful, cutting Saudi oil production in half and temporarily stemming roughly 5 percent of the world’s petroleum production. Tensions in the region have been particularly high, considering the ongoing conflict in Yemen, Iranian aggression in the Strait of Hormuz, and the ongoing American diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran designed to thwart its nuclear program. 

Missile defense critics were quick to discredit Saudi reliance on the U.S.-made Patriot surface-to-air missile system as insufficient protection for this and any similar attack. Such criticism even led Russia’s Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinBiden prepares to confront Putin Ukrainian president thanks G-7 nations for statement of support Biden aims to bolster troubled Turkey ties in first Erdoğan meeting MORE to jokingly offer sale of the Russian S-400 missile defense system to combat future such attacks while meeting with his counterparts from Iran and Turkey. Naturally, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani found this amusing.  

Just think about how cynical this is. Russia arms and enables Iran with, at least in part, the technology to wage asymmetric attacks. And then, Russia offers Saudi Arabia weapons to “protect” themselves from such future attacks. Incredible.

Yet placing early and inconclusive blame on the reliability of the Patriot or similar missile systems plays directly into the hands of America’s enemies. By panning the Patriot, Russia paints a false attractiveness of the Russian S-400 system, which has been purchased by China, India and, regrettably, NATO ally Turkey. Interestingly, the S-400 is not designed for hitting low-altitude, slow targets.

Falsely discrediting U.S. technology and systems drives allies and others toward systems such as the S-400, while emboldening adversaries working around the clock to hurt the United States and defeat our allied defensive systems. We ought not stand idly by as the world questions the reliability of U.S. capabilities and resolve.  


A recent episode of CBS’ 60 Minutes featuring Saudi Prince Mohammad bin Salman included a pointed question about how Saudi Arabia’s air defenses include U.S. Patriot and Hawk missile systems which were not designed to shoot down drones. While obviously true, since the Patriot system was built to protect against high-flying jets and ballistic missiles, and we know drones and short range cruise missiles fly much lower, the fact is every component of missile defense is only as good as the sum of its parts. Just because drones and low-flying cruise missiles appear to have been used last month, that doesn’t mean Iran won’t attack with ballistic missiles or jets next month.

That’s why “defense in depth” is vital to protect our allies from Iran and other rogue actors.

Without an integrated, layered system there inevitably will be vulnerable gaps in the system.  And without integration with other systems such as THAAD and Counter Unmanned Aircraft Systems, targets such as Aramco will not be fully protected. Missile defense isn’t one-size-fits-all. Moreover, compatible systems shared by partners and allies make for the best integrated defense. 

As U.S. and allied intelligence agencies complete their investigation of the Aramco attacks, we must consider what needs to be done differently to prevent future attacks and counter projected threats. We must continue to develop and deploy technologies that will detect and defeat the rapid proliferation of drones, integrating them with capabilities to counter cruise missile, ballistic missile and hypersonic missile threats.  

Reliable, layered, interoperable, capable and integrated defensive systems shared among allies are a must to combat the ever-evolving missile threats of the future. It’s a reminder that “defense in depth” remains just as critical to protecting America and our allies today as it was in my Navy days.

Donald Loren, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral, served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Security Integration under President George W. Bush and was appointed by President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden prepares to confront Putin Biden aims to bolster troubled Turkey ties in first Erdoğan meeting Senate investigation of insurrection falls short MORE in 2017 to serve as Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs for Operations, Security, and Preparedness.