Saudi Arabia appears to have been powerless to stop the oil-field attack because of its antiquated air defenses and internal dysfunction

Saudi oil attack damageThis image provided on Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019, by the U.S. government and DigitalGlobe and annotated by the source, shows damage to the infrastructure at Saudi Aramco's Abaqaiq oil processing facility in Buqyaq, Saudi Arabia.U.S. government/Digital Globe via AP

  • More information has emerged about the state of Saudi Arabia's defenses at the time of an attack on a crucial oil facility.
  • Imagery and analysis by experts suggests that the Abqaiq processing site was defended by aging French missile batteries from the 1980s. Some gun emplacements seemed empty.
  • Combined with this is the notorious dysfunction within various defense forces within Saudi Arabia.
  • This appears to have left them vulnerable, despite the enormous resources devoted to defending against such strikes.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Analysis of the Saudi oil facilities hit over the weekend in an attack by drones and cruise missiles suggests that the defenses used around the sites were inadequate and out-of-date.

This, coupled with the notoriously poor coordination between overlapping parts of the Saudi defense apparatus, appear to explain why the attack was so successful despite the considerable resources deployed to stop it happening.

Imagery of the Abqaiq processing site, and nearby Khurais oil field, seems to show only an elderly French missile system and a handful of anti aircraft guns, according to an assessment by a US defense expert.

saudi arabia strikePlanet Labs Inc/Handout via REUTERS

Such defenses would not stand a chance against a swarm of cheap cruise missiles, which US officials have characterized as the most likely mode of attack.

Investigators continue to comb the wreckage of the attack, as well as radar data from the time of the incident, in an effort to determine who supplied the weapons and where the attack originated.

US officials have accused Iran of supplying the weapons and claim some evidence indicates a possibility the missiles were fired from Iran itself, though the evidence has not been conclusive.

Saudi officials have been slow to blame Iran, potentially because of the serious consequences of such an action, which could leave the Saudis with little choice other than a military response.

Read more: If US claims of how the Saudi oil attack went down are true, then the failure to prevent it is a huge embarrassment

Arms researchers and experts also studying the data warn that the attack can be seen as much as a Saudi failure as an Iranian success.

"You know who I feel sorry for in Saudi Arabia right now? The Air Defense Forces officer in charge of the short-range air defenses at the Abqaiq oil facility. He'll be lucky to get out of this with his life," tweeted Michael Duitsman, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California.

According to his analysis, supported by images in a series of tweets (seen below), the weapons include the 1980s-era Shahine mobile anti-aircraft system, which was built in France. It can detect and engage enemy planes at a range of around 12 miles.

Duitsman said this system would be incapable of dealing with modern threats like cruise missiles of drones, which are small, move fast, and fly low.

The Saudis could also have used anti-aircraft guns as a last line of defense. But Duitsman noted that imagery from just a few days before the attack shows gun emplacements in the south west and south west corners of the facility standing empty.

Insider was able to corroborate parts of Duitsman's analysis, which matches known information about weapons Saudi Arabia has imported, and our own analysis of the images.

Considering Saudi Arabia's position as the world's third-largest purchaser of weapons systems, the arsenal at Abqaiq, where at least 17 missiles hit targets, were decidedly low-tech.

Saudi Arabia oil attack aramcoSmoke is seen following a fire at an Aramco factory in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia, September 14, 2019.VIDEOS OBTAINED BY REUTERS/via REUTERS

As well as besting relatively poor technology, the attackers also appear to have exploited an even bigger vulnerability: The lack of coordination within the Saudi defense apparatus.

Duitsman said that the local defenses used by the facility would have fallen under the protection of the Saudi Ministry of Interior, which maintains a domestic security force to help protect critical sites.

Becca Wasser, a defense analyst for the RAND Corporation, tweeted: "First, defense of oil infrastructure falls under [the Ministry of Interior], not the Saudi military. Most of US arms sales to KSA, particularly in air defense, have been to the military."

"The MOI, to my knowledge, isn't well kitted out for this role as they tend to focus on domestic threats." 

"Second, there are multiple players in the air defense space in KSA. The MOI defends critical infrastructure while the [Royal Saudi Air Defense] is charged with homeland defense. On top of that, you have the [Saudi Arabian National Guard] also responsible for protecting infrastructure & possessing its own air defense systems."

mohammed bin salmanSaudi Arabia Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the G20 opening ceremony at the Hangzhou International Expo Center on September 4, 2016 in Hangzhou, China. World leaders are gathering for the 11th G20 Summit from September 4-5.Nicolas Asfouri - Pool/Getty Images

Sharing air defense in this way is not unusual around the world. But multiple experts describe the ability of the Saudi forces to work alongside each other as uniquely dysfunctional.

"The Saudis have terrible internal communications and coordination because the military, Ministry of Interior, and National Guard are all patronage networks controlled by rival figures," said a former NATO military officer who works in the Gulf as a military trainer and consultant.

"The KSA system, like many others in the region, is designed to make sure that none of the security forces have strong communications and coordination because when the security forces are consolidated and are able to communicate, the risks of a coup jump."
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