The Iranian UAV and cruise missle threat

Iranian flag missle
EDITORS' NOTE: Reuters and other foreign media are subject to Iranian restrictions on their ability to film or take pictures in Tehran. An Iranian flag is pictured next to Russian-made Sam-6 surface-to-air missiles during a war exhibition held by Iran's revolutionary guard to mark the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), also known in Iran as the "Holy Defence", at Baharestan square near the Iranian Parliament in southern Tehran September 25, 2010. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl (IRAN - Tags: ANNIVERSARY MILITARY POLITICS IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTXSN84
The Reuters news agency published an in-depth report this week about a surprise attack on Saudi Arabia in September. Riyadh and most Western governments placed responsibility for the attack, which utilized GPS-guided suicide drones and cruise missiles to make precision strikes on sensitive components of Saudi Aramco’s Khurais oil installation and the Abqaiq oil processing facility, squarely at the feet of the clerical regime which rules Iran. That regime, however, flatly denied involvement and was supported by Russia and China. Israeli leaders also responded, warning that a similar attack on Israel was probably already being planned.

The Reuters report included a claim, based on information provided by four unnamed but highly placed Iranian sources which had direct knowledge of the events described, that a meeting of high-ranking Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officers convened in Teheran four months before the strikes to discuss options for retaliating against the US for re-imposing sanctions on Iran following the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal. Several officers present at the meeting demanded that a strike must be carried out against US military forces stationed in the region, but they were overruled by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who likely feared that the American response would be more than his regime could handle.

The decision to strike at Saudi Arabia’s oil production infrastructure was settled on for several reasons, among them the hope that it would drive up the price of oil worldwide, which would automatically increase the Iranian regime’s revenue streams as most of its budget is derived from the sale of oil on world markets. Some analysts have also speculated that the IRGC officers took a calculated risk that the US would not respond kinetically to the attacks on Saudi Arabia as the alliance between Washington and Riyadh has come under significant strain in recent years for various reasons. If that is the case, the risk paid off as US President Donald Trump did indeed decline to launch a retaliatory military strike against Iran, although some press reports indicated that he did authorize the Pentagon to carry out cyber-attacks.

Meanwhile, the strikes on Saudi Arabia and their implications reverberated around the world, including by producing brief spike in the price of oil and expressions of deep concern on the part of senior officials in Saudi Arabia and other allies whose security is tied to their alliance with the US.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned specifically in early October that IRGC forces in Yemen might be working on plans to fire UAV’s and/or cruise missiles at Israel. On 25 November, General Hossein Salami, chief of the IRGC, appeared to confirm that Netanyahu’s concerns were legitimate when he told a pro-regime rally in Teheran “We have shown patience towards the hostile moves of America, the Zionist regime (Israel) and Saudi Arabia against Iran… but we will destroy them if they cross our red lines.”

During a recent press conference, the ICEJ News team spoke with Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, IDF Spokesman for Foreign Media, about Israel’s response to the strikes. He  said that Israeli intelligence and defense officials were studying the attacks closely and working on plans to defend against similar strikes Iranian forces might attempt to launch against Israel.

However, the problem of how to defend against suicide drones and cruise missiles presents many technical challenges. Unlike high trajectory ballistic missiles and rockets which Israel and the US have developed defense systems against (including the THAAD, Patriot, Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Arrow systems) these drones and cruise missiles are designed to fly low and hit small targets with pinpoint accuracy enabled by their GPS guidance kits. This also allows them to be fitted with a relatively small and light explosive charge while a relatively small amount of fuel is needed to carry them to their target, allowing them to fly at a much higher velocity. So they’re smarter, smaller, faster and flying at significantly lower altitude than an old-fashioned rocket or ballistic missile, all of which makes them much more difficult to intercept then those old-fashioned threats.

All of this has the defense establishments in Israel and many other Western countries scrambling to figure out how Iran managed to put together such a potent weapon and how to defend against it. One commentator asked the question of whether this paradigm shift was comparable to the advent of air warfare in WWI, while another questioned whether the quantum leap forward in tactical advantage it gives to the military which has mastered it could cancel out the strategic advantage their opponents might have by possessing nuclear weapons.

In any event, the Reuters report quoted an unnamed IRGC commander who participated in the planning for September’s attack on Saudi Arabia as telling his subordinates to make plans for “the next one” which could very well mean the IRGC is planning to hit targets in Israel from their bases in Yemen and/or western Iraq and possibly even Syria. If that is the case, then the clock is ticking for Israel’s defense community to find a technical solution to this new and unexpected threat.

This article originally appeared on ICEJ’s website and re-posted with permission.