It's believed a swarm of drones attacked oil installations in Saudi Arabia, damaging facilities that process the vast majority of the country's crude output. File photo.

The recent attacks on Saudi oil processing facilities, apparently by Yemen-based Houthi rebels and (most likely) Iran, were carried out using a combination of drones and cruise missiles. This attack highlights both the growing ubiquity of such weapons and their incredible effectiveness in the hands of relatively unsophisticated fighting forces.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are everywhere. In 2013, it was found that at least 57 countries and 270 companies were producing UAVs, and nearly every military worth its salt possesses some kind of drone, mostly for aerial reconnaissance and surveillance. At the same time, few countries have armed drones (like the kind that were used in the Saudi oil facilities attack), however, and still fewer operate cruise missiles (basically one-way drones), given the complexity of their use. However, these attacks show that even that is changing.

Drones and Israel

Drones are not complicated, technologically speaking. Any nation with a rudimentary knowledge of aircraft manufacturing can design a drone, and there are literally dozens of working examples out there to guide someone. This is in part why drones generally resemble each other – they all have to follow the same laws of aerodynamics.

Nor are they hard to build. It is important to remember that the country that basically invented the modern UAV was Israel, starting more than 40 years ago. Israel’s first-generation drones were small and simple, such as the Scout and Searcher UAVs. These were originally used to provide real-time tactical surveillance, without risking a manned reconnaissance aircraft.

These relatively basic UAVs were succeeded by more sophisticated models, particularly medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) drones like the Heron and Hermes. MALE drones could provide armed forces with longer-range, strategic surveillance and reconnaissance. Israel also produces the reconnaissance payload, such as stabilized electro-optical cameras, forward-looking infrared (FLIR) sensors, and laser designators.

Israel quickly found other uses for its drones. During the 1982 Bekaa Valley operations, for example, Israel relied on UAVs not only for intelligence-gathering but also as lures and decoys used to take out Syrian surface-to-air missiles.

Israel also developed the first armed UAVs, such as the loitering Harpy and the Harop drones; these UAVs – which are basically flying bombs – home in on radio emissions to destroy enemy radar. In addition, the  Israeli Hermes 450 MALE drone can be fitted out with missiles for air-to-ground missiles.

Israel dominates the international market for UAVs. Between 1985 and 2014, Israel accounted for 60.7 percent of all UAV exports worldwide, and between 2010 and 2014 it delivered 165 drones to other countries. UAVs like the Searcher, the Harop, and the Hermes have been sold to dozens of countries around the world. Israel has also collaborated with the United States, Russia, and the Swiss military to help manufacture or develop their own UAVs.

Cruise missiles and Iran

Cruise missiles tend to get lost in all the hoopla over armed drones, but they are every bit a proliferating weapon and therefore just as threatening. Cruise missiles are much more complicated than drones, of course, due their propulsion systems (usually a small turbojet engine), their guidance systems (because they usually fly longer distances), and their terminal homing requirements. In addition, in recent years people have been mostly concerned about hypersonic or supersonic cruise missile, but the global spread of subsonic cruise missiles has been much more pronounced.

Like UAVs, cruise missiles have been around for decades, mostly in anti-ship versions. These have ranges of less than 300 kilometers and are limited to naval use. However, a critical development over the past decade or so has been the growth in the number of land-attack cruise missiles (LACM). Once, only a handful of countries (such as the United States and Israel) could produce LACMs. Today, China, India, South Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey (among others) manufacture – and often export – LACMs, some of which have ranges in excess of 1,500 kilometers.

Iran has put particular effort into its family of homegrown cruise missiles. It got a lot of help from China: back in the 1990s, Beijing sold several different types of antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs) to Teheran, including the YJ-7/C-701 and YJ-83/C-802 ASCMs. At the same time, China provided Iran with the technology to manufacture these missiles domestically; it even sold Iran the French turbojet engine that powered the C-802 export version (which the Iranians likely reverse-engineered).

Other countries have helped Iran as well. Ukraine reportedly sold second-hand Kh-55 cruise missiles to Teheran, and the Czech Republic might have given the Iranians a license to produce a small turbojet engine to power the latter’s indigenous missiles.

Iran, we might say, took the ball and ran with it. Over the past two decades, it has developed a number of cruise missiles, graduating into building a variety of LACMs. The one most likely used in the Saudi oil facilities attack was the Quds-1/Soumar LACM (which uses one of those Czech turbojets), which has a range in excess of 1,500 kilometers.

What Israel and Iran tell us

Armed drones and cruise missiles are not easy to manufacture. At the same time, as Israel and Iran have demonstrated, neither is it impossible for a motivated “middle power” to indigenously design and produce such weaponry on its own. A nation must be willing to invest the money, manpower, and time in such an endeavor (and a little help from foreign technology doesn’t hurt). However, the payoff can be huge, as armed drones and cruise missile often provide a lot of bang for the buck. And it ain’t exactly rocket science anymore.

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