The location of the fire is an open reservoir south of the main facility. Photo: Google Earth

Updated Report: On the night of September 14, 2019, several attacks rocked two strategic infrastructure sites in Saudi Arabia. One target was a gas plant near the large oil field at Khurais, recently developed by the Saudi national oil company Aramco. The second was the company’s main processing center and one of the world’s largest oil refineries at Abqaiq (Buqayq), 200 km northeast of Khurais.

U.S. officials blame Iran as the culprit, indicating that the attack was launched from known staging areas across the Persian Gulf. But Iran’s proxy in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen Houthi Ansarallah stepped forward to take responsibility.

At the morning after the attack Yemeni Houthi military spokesperson, General Yahya Sari, the attack, called ‘Operation Deterrent Balance 2’ was carried out by ten drones. However, the number of hits (18 in Abqaiq, four in Khurais) contradict the Houthi claim.

According to Houthi military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yahya Sari the attack was launched from three different positions within Yemen. Three types of drones were used – the Qasef-3, a hitherto unknown type with a range of 1700 km, that can carry four weapons, the long-range Samad-3 UAVs (a small drone with a maximum range of 1,500 km unveiled by Yemen two months ago) and a jet-powered UAVs (Sari did not identify the type but this was likely the Quds-1 cruise missile. The range of that missile has not been confirmed and, according to different sources, could be from 700 to 1,350 km). Each type of missile was launched from a different location. Sari said that some of the UAVs released decoys to jam Saudi radars and distract their air-defenses. Sari provided those details on a press conference on September 18.

The US and Saudi Arabia pointed at Iran as responsible for the attack, claiming it came from Iran’s territory or from the Iran/Iraq border. On a press conference on September 18, Saudi defense officials confirmed that the weapons that performed were made by Iran. During the conference, the ministry presented the wreckage of seven delta-wing UAVs and two cruise missiles used in the attacks.

Based on the forensic evidence collected at three sites attacked (two this month and another in May this year), the Saudis determined that 18 ‘delta-winged suicide drones’ participated in the attack on the Abqaiq refinery. The exact type of drone was not disclosed. Seven cruise missiles were launched at the oil field Khurais. The Saudis claim these missiles were of the Iranian Ya-Ali type. Only four of the seven missiles actually reached their target.

Parts retrieved from the Abqaiq refinery site attacked by 18 suicide drones on the night of September 14, 2019, show a propeller-driven delta-winged drone, similar to the Iranian Toophan 2 (also known as Chamran 2)

Defence Ministry spokesperson Colonel Turki al-Maliki said in a press conference in Riyadh a total of 25 drones and missiles were launched at two oil plants in last weekend’s strikes, including what he identified as Iranian Delta Wing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and ‘Ya Ali’ cruise missiles. He said the missiles are known to be used by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and could not be used by the Houthis due to their limited range.

The Iranian Ya-Ali missile has a range of 700km, shorter than the range of Soumar missiles, previously indicated as culprits. Each Ya-Ali missile carries a warhead of 200 kg. However, missile parts presented by the Saudis were not similar to the Iranian Ya-Ali.

Satellite photo from September 14, 2019, shows a major fire at the outskirt of Buqyaq (Abqaiq) refinery in Saudi Arabia. Satellite Photo: Planet
Damage to structures and signs of fire are seen in this satellite image from Khurais. Photo: DigitalGlobe

According to reports from Buqayq, 12 explosions were heard around 03:00 AM local time before multiple fires erupted at the site. The fires raged at least till morning, but according to Saudi sources, by then the fires were under control. Satellite images taken on the morning of September 15th confirm the main fires were put out by the next day. Images from Khurais indicate fires at the Hawiyh gas plant, though and satellite images of that site show no open fires. No casualties were reported by the Saudi authorities. Few minutes before the attack, tweets on twitter reported loud, low flying jets in the area (Kuwait?) and ‘noise of several drones.’

Satellite images released by the US Administrations today indicate 17 points of impact on key infrastructure at the Abqaiq, some of the impacts punctured holes in liquified natural gas (LNG) storage tanks, but, no structural damage that would be caused by a major explosion. Some of the tanks do indicate fire damages.

Punctured LNG storage tanks at Abqaiq. The damage from the September 14 attack seems to be caused by a small explosive shaped charge, (guided weapons?) rather than large cruise missiles such as the Soumar. The Iranians do have small, stealthy suicide drones that can cause such effects or drones that carry multiple PGM that would cause this damage. However, flying such drones over this protected site would be extremely difficult. Photo: DigitalGlobe.
The damage inflicted by the Iranian suicide drone on the LNG tank indicates a small warhead and low speed.

According to preliminary information, the successful attacks were made by low-flying aerial platforms, although the exact type of those platforms is yet unknown. Some speculations claim the attacks could have launched from Iraq, but this claim hasn’t been substantiated yet.

While the Houthis, who originally took responsibility, have claimed several attacks in Saudi Arabia and the UAE so far, some of them by drones, most of their attacks used ballistic missiles, and more recently, cruise missiles, alas at shorter range. So far most of which targeted the south-western region, only a few have reached as far as Riyadh and the East of the kingdom.

The US blames Iran for the strike, and current assessments are that it came from the north – i.e. – from Iraq. Nevertheless, the short-range from Iran to Saudi Arabia enables cruise missiles and drones to take a long route and reach their targets from any direction, in an attempt to circumvent the coastal-based air defenses and conceal the true origin of the attack.

The recent strike was the second attack at Aramco oil facilities in a month. On August 17th the Houthis directed a similar attack at the Shaybah oil field in the kingdom’s South East region, under ‘Operation Deterrent Balance 1’. That attack that used three unmanned aerial vehicles, targeted wells and a refinery. Saudi officials acknowledged the report admitting the attack involved three unmanned aerial vehicles that have caused ‘slight damage’ to a gas station on site. According to preliminary assessments, the recent strike was more severe and effective than past attacks, causing Saudi Arabia to announce it may have to halve the supply of sweet (refined) oil in the coming days.

Wreckage remaining from two cruise missiles retrieved after the attack on the Saudi Khurais oil field. The Saudis claim these are the Iranian Ya-Ali types.
Tail parts that remained from one of the cruise missiles that crashed in Saudi Arabia and the remains of cruise-missiles shown by the Saudis do not conform to the Ya-Ali model, but to the Soumar, with much longer range.

Most of the recent attacks involved Quds-1 cruise missiles. These are believed to be the Iranian built Soumar cruise missiles. Quds-1 is believed to be the Soumar, itself an Iranian developed canister stored, booster-launched surface-to-surface cruise missile. Soumar is an Iranian clone of the Russian Kh-55 obtained from Ukraine. The Iranian/Yemeni missile is powered by a small turbojet. Its claimed range is 1,350 km.

The Ya-Ali light cruise missile was unveiled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in public in 2014. The Saudi Defense Ministry claimed the Ya-Ali was used by the Houthis in their attack on the Abha airport on June 2019. On that attack parts similar to the Soumar were also presented.

If the recent attack was carried out by Quds-1 cruise missiles launched from Yemen, the operation indicates a step-change from previous attacks, for the simultaneous use of 10 missiles. The successful attack at an area well protected by several surface-to-air (Patriot and Improved Hawk) sites confirms the effectiveness of cruise missiles even in open and flat terrain. While at least one of the missiles have crashed on the way to the target, most of the missiles managed to break through the defenses and strike the refinery.

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[wlm_ismember]As it is now evident that the two sites were struck by different weapons (maybe more), such operation represents an impressive improvement in the operational capabilities of the Iranians and their supported proxies. The level of damage and accuracy of hits, particularly in the LNG storage tanks indicate the use of precision-guided weapons, either weapons launched by drones or suicide drones attacking in a swarm.

The Yemeni claimed coordinated attack by cruise missiles, loitering/suicide drones, and decoys, would be even more complex, demanding careful synchronization of weapons with different attack characteristics and flight patterns. A coordinated attack by cruise missiles and drones launched simultaneously from Yemen and Iraq is also possible.

It is not yet known if the attack drones (Whether Sammad-3 or others) offer a selective attack capability, enabling remote operators to pick a specific target for the attack. Such capabilities could explain the multiple hits scored in the attack. Such capability could have relied on the use of on-board satellite phone, retransmitting target images or deploying special forces forward controllers on the ground near the target. Both ways could make the loitering drones much more effective and selective in their attack.

A cylindrical, prefragmented warhead of a Soumar (Quds-1) cruise missile launched by the Houthis in 2017. The original warhead used in the Russian Kh55 weighs about 400 kg.

The Soumar (or Ya-Ali as it is referred to by the Saudis) cruise missile was first launched by the Houthis in 2017 against the Barakah nuclear power plant in the UAE. That attack has not succeeded, as the missile failed few minutes after launch and crashed in North Yemen. Images of the warhead that remained intact after that crash show relatively large, pre-fragmented cylindrical warhead.

That deployment seems to have been premature. In the following months, the Houthis have learned to operate the missile, and their Iranian sponsors improved the platform, introducing the use of Czech TJ-100 engine produced by Czech’s PBS Velká Bíteš. Vehicle-mounted canister-launcher has also been added, storing and transporting the weapon in a more reliable form.

Quds-1 cruise missiles have been employed on June 12 this year, on an attack against the Saudi international airport at Abha. A week later, on June 19, another cruise missile struck the water desalination plant in Jizan province, Saudi Arabia, on the eastern shore of the Red Sea.

Two months ago, on July 7, 2019, the Houthis in Yemen unveiled a range of long-range weapons they have developed and fielded. Ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and unmanned attack vehicles the Houthis claim to have developed indigenously and employed in attacks against Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are in fact made in Iran.

Among the new missiles were Burkan H2 ballistic missiles, Sammad-1 and Sammad-3 and Qasef K2 ‘suicide drones’, and Quds-1 cruise missiles. The later is likely a version of the Iranian Soumar or Hoveyzeh, a member of the Soumar cruise missile family unveiled in Iran in February.

Iranian sources claimed Hoveyzeh can fly out to a range of 1,350 km at a very low altitude, and bypass all existing American and Israeli defense systems and hit any target in without being detected. However, the same attributes were also claimed for Soumar two years ago.

While the local origin of that weapon is questioned, there is no doubt that most, if not all the missiles shown on the July 7 display are already operational, and most of them come from Iran serving operational testing and means to achieve strategic influence in the Arabian peninsula.[/wlm_ismember]