A few weeks ago I wrote a piece arguing that Iran could inflict serious damage on the US Navy if war erupts in the Middle East. In it, I argued that Tehran could use a dispersed force model to cause strategic paralysis by overwhelming tactical commanders with information. Is this what just happened in the Gulf?
There is still a lot of debate about the source of the weekend’s attack on a Saudi Aramco oil refinery, which has wiped out half of the Kingdom’s oil output (five per cent of global supplies) and forced the US to authorise releases from its Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Saudi officials have since flown to the US and Iranian President Rouhani has met with Turkish President Erdogan and Russian President Putin in Turkey.
Numerous press reports originally cited 10 drones armed with ‘special weapons’ that flew in from Yemen, based on claims of responsibility from the Houthi rebel group. Yet US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Donald Trump have blamed Iran, and an unnamed US official has pointed to evidence allegedly supporting that assertion.
Declassified US photos show 17-19 points of impact at the site, with the same official citing evidence of a ‘west-northwest’ launch area involving cruise missiles, not drones. Evidence that emerged from the US later in the week now suggests a mixture of drones and cruise missiles launched straight from Iran.
“There's no doubt that Iran is responsible for this,” the official said. “No matter how you slice it, there's no escaping it. There's no other candidate.”
No matter how you slice it, the attack represents a failure of intelligence and of US and Saudi air defence systems. Any uncertainty about the who, what or where is itself an indictment given the attack passed by a whole row of US and Saudi military bases stretched from Kuwait down to southern Oman.
If missiles and drones were flown from southern Iran (the northern end of the Gulf), as US officials claim, they flew virtually right over the headquarters of US Central Command and the Fifth Fleet and vital shipping in the Persian Gulf. Low-flying drone or missiles can be difficult to detect and track, but it is nonetheless remarkable that Iran can bypass these defences and hit a critical oil refinery deep in Saudi territory, yet still create so much uncertainty in the process.
The same US officials claim the missiles and drones were not intercepted because Saudi air defences were pre-occupied with the threat from Yemen – a claim that highlights the human decision-making bottleneck Iran is evidently able to exploit.
The attack can therefore be taken as a forecast of the damage Iran could inflict on the US Navy if war breaks out in the Gulf. A 2002 simulation of this exact scenario forecast the loss of 19 American ships, including an aircraft carrier, and 20,000 lives in the opening 10 minutes of hostilities. In 2019, the attack on Saudi Aramco shows this possibility remains very real.
President Trump has since threatened war on Twitter. Yet the available evidence shows that war will cost the US dearly; and whilst Iranian hardliners may count a steep American cost as victory, the US is certain to inflict catastrophic damage on Iran. If war happens, nobody wins.