The US Reinforces Saudi Defenses –Will Iron Dome Protect the Oil Fields?

by Stephen Bryen

A Version of this article previously appeared in Asia Times

The US Department of Defense has announced it will send additional troops to Saudi Arabia and the UAE and reinforce air defenses.  While the exact locations for additional air defenses has not been announced yet, the most likely deployment of additional assets would be along Saudi Arabia’s northern border facing Iraq and Iran.  The US will also install some point defense systems (radars plus guns) around critical oil facilities and military bases. 

Right now the US lacks ideal systems to counter cruise missiles and drones.  The best system for that purpose is the pending delivery of the Israeli Iron Dome system to the US Army.  In early August the Army agreed to purchase two Iron Dome batteries with delivery expected in 2020.  Whether Israel could quickly deliver a system to meet an urgent need is unclear.

Iron Dome was developed by Rafael in Israel and Raytheon in the United States to deal with the threat of short range missiles, primarily those being fired by Hamas in the Gaza strip.  The system has performed brilliantly against these threats.   Each Iron Dome battery includes three to four stationary launchers that contain  20 Tamir interceptor missiles and a battlefield radar.  The US is buying 240 Tamir interceptor missiles, twelve launchers, and two radars and command trailers.

According to Sébastien Roblin, “Since 2011, the Israel Defense Force has used the Iron Dome system to shoot down over 1,700 unguided rockets and mortar shells launched by militants in Lebanon, Syria, and the Gaza Strip against Israeli communities. An Iron Dome battery can also engage aircraft, drones, large artillery shells and possibly even cruise and ballistic missiles—as proven by its shoot down of an Iranian Fateh ballistic missile on January 20, 2019. “

It is likely that the US will also temporarily deploy additional Patriot air defense batteries, particularly around the oil fields, and put radars on towers to be better able to detect incoming cruise missiles and drones.  Patriot was never optimized against cruise missiles or drones, but it can nevertheless provide some defensive capability. 

Patriot can be augmented by rapid fire gun emplacements that can provide terminal defense.  These can be cued by ground based radar and feature electro-optical sensors.  The best of them is the Navy’s Phalanx rapid fire 20mm gun system.  The land version of Phalanx is called C-RAM for counter rocket, artillery and mortar system.  C-RAM has a forward looking infrared camera to identify incoming threats.  The US and British forces used C-RAM in Iraq.

There are other systems in Europe that might be available if the US asked for them.  These include the  Nächstbereichschutzsystem MANTIS: 35mm fully automated C-RAM system, produced by Rheinmetall based on Oerlikon’s Skyshield and ordered by the German Air Force and in use from 2011.  Italy also has an excellent system called DRACO that uses a super-rapid 76mm gun.  Its main advantage is the 76mm (3 inch) round can effectively destroy a larger threat like a cruise missile compared to the 20mm rapid fire systems that would probably need to hit a larger target multiple times.

It has to be strongly emphasized that the US today is poorly prepared against cruise missile and drone threats, which is why it turned to Israel for help.    

Iron Dome launches a Tamir Interceptor Missile

Training will be a critical issue for US Army and Air Force personnel to learn to deal with cruise missile and drone threats.  Right now US forces are not trained for this sort of mission.  Help might be provided by Israel which has been faced with such threats for some time.  Israel could give this help bilaterally and might even attach some of their personnel to US forces.  Of course Saudi and UAE permission might be needed, but it is unlikely to be rejected under the circumstances.

An additional problem is to clean out spies that have been planted in Saudi Arabia by Iran.  There isn’t much doubt that infiltrators around the oil installations directed the cruise missiles and drones to their targets.  Whether they used TV guidance or laser is irrelevant: what matters is that they were able to move about in the Kingdom with equipment supplied for that purpose.  These bad actors need to be found and removed.

The addition of US forces is, of course in lieu of retaliation against Iran.  But in this kind of warfare, the defender is always at a major disadvantage if he has to wait to be attacked and can’t knock out the threat at its origin point.  Israel, for example has aggressively gone after drone and missile threats and knocked them out, whenever it can find them, using excellent intelligence and sophisticated and coordinated counter-threat operations.  US intelligence is far from adequate, and whatever forces moved to the Kingdom are, the lack of good intelligence is a major problem.   The Defense Department will have to reach deep into its bag of intelligence tricks to operate a credible defensive system in the region.  Most noteworthy, much more attention will have to be given to human intelligence (HUMINT) than relying solely on technical intelligence (for example, ELINT or electronic intelligence).  Whether this can be achieved is open to some doubt.
Overall the US move is only a first step, but its deficiencies have one silver lining: the US will now be obliged to more rapidly move toward a proper defense capability against cruise missiles and drones.