Iran’s Saudi attack raises alarm about potential to hit Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor

October 09, 2019

The remains of the drones and low-altitude cruise missiles used in Iran’s recent and highly sophisticated attack on the Saudi oil industry. Existing air defense systems failed to stop the attack

 

“THE SPECTER OF COMPLEX, INTEGRATED AIR AND MISSILE ATTACK IS NOT THEORETICAL – IT HAS ARRIVED”

[Note by Tom Gross]

I attach three articles (from Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post, and Defense News) concerning the recent devastating attack by the Iranians on the Saudi oil refineries, and the implications for Israel’s security.

The 85-percent ‘success’ rate on Saudi targets by Iranian missiles indicates a very high degree of capability. By comparison, only 60 percent of targets were hit in cruise missile attacks launched by the United States in other cases.

The first piece below is by Uzi Even, a professor of chemistry and one of the founding scientists of Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor. (He is also a former member of parliament for the left-wing Meretz party.)

Prof. Even writes: “The Iranians, or their proxies, showed that they can hit specific targets with great precision and from a distance of hundreds of kilometers. We [in Israel] have to accept the fact that we are now vulnerable to such a strike. It is very good that the ammonia tank in Haifa has been mostly emptied (this only took 20 years). [But other] gas and fuel tanks need to be buried underground. The Pi Glilot fuel terminal should be relocated further from Ramat Aviv. Power stations should be better protected against a direct hit. And, above all, operation of the Dimona nuclear reactor should be halted.”

 

NOT A THEORETICAL ENEMY

Iran could attack Israel, just as it did the Saudi oil fields, reports the Jerusalem Post in the second article below. As a result Israel’s security cabinet this week decided to upgrade Israel’s aerial defense systems.

“Iran is not a theoretical enemy,” Israeli Likud cabinet Minister Yoav Galant (who was previously a Major-General) said. The Iranian regime has been increasing its hostile activity throughout the Middle East in recent months and it has repeatedly threatened to destroy Israel.

 

THE THREAT AGAINST NUCLEAR REACTORS IN EUROPE MAY BE GREATER

In the third article below, by Seth Frantzman in Defense News, he quotes Daniel Shapiro, Barack Obama’s former U.S. ambassador to Israel, as saying:

“If U.S.-supplied air defenses were not oriented to defend against an attack from Iran, that’s incomprehensible. If they were, but they were not engaged, that’s incompetent. If they simply weren’t up to the task of preventing such precision attacks, that’s concerning.”

“The attack on Saudi Arabia would seem to validate Israeli concerns that even effective air and missile defense systems, as Israel has, could be overwhelmed by a sufficient quantity of precision-guidance missiles.”

By contrast, Brig. Gen. Pini Yungman, a former air defense commander with the Israeli Air Force and currently head of Rafael’s air defense systems division, contrasts the drone swarm with a cruise missile with a range of 1,000 kilometers and equipped with a large warhead. “Drones, even drone swarms, are not a strategic threat, even if you take dozens to attack. They carry a very low weight of bomb or ammunition,” Yungman said.

Uzi Rubin, former director of the state-run Israel Missile Defense Organization, doesn’t think what happened in Saudi Arabia could happen in Israel. “We have a smaller area, and that has an advantage in many respects because it is an advantage in controlling our airspace.”

Yungman adds that a long-range precision missile aimed at a strategic facility including a nuclear reactor in a European country would be a more serious threat.

However, Thomas Karako, a senior fellow at the CSIS think tank, told Defense News that the attack on Saudi Arabia suggests a dramatic escalation. “More broadly speaking, it is what I’ve been talking about: The specter of complex, integrated air and missile attack is not theoretical – it has arrived.”

(Tom Gross adds: Israel has far more sophisticated aerial defense systems than most countries.)


ARTICLES

WHAT THE ATTACK ON SAUDI ARABIA SHOWS US ABOUT DIMONA

What the Attack on Saudi Arabia Shows Us About Dimona
By Uzi Even
Haaretz (Opinion)
October 5, 2019

The attack perpetrated by the Iranians on the Saudi refineries – be it directly or indirectly – has direct implications for our security. These ramifications still have not been widely discussed in public, but I intend to do so here because they require rethinking Iran’s capabilities vis-à-vis Israel.

1. A total of 20 cruise missiles and drones were used in the attack. Such an operation requires a high degree of coordination, real-time communication, navigation and target selection. The Iranians had previously demonstrated the ability to operate a large number of drones (nearly 50) in a military exercise this past July. The Iranians also demonstrated impressive communications capability when they seized control of an advanced American drone, brought it down in their territory and copied it to suit their needs. Drone wreckage discovered in Saudi Arabia shows that the Iranians are manufacturing and operating drones so advanced (with jet engines and significant stealth capabilities) that they do not lag behind Israeli capabilities in this field.

2. Seventeen targets incurred a direct hit in this concentrated bombardment. Considering the 20 projectiles whose debris was found at the attack site, that’s an 85-percent success rate, which indicates the very high capability and reliability of the technology that was used. By comparison, 60 percent of the targets were hit in cruise missile attacks conducted by the United States. And in Russia’s missile strikes on ISIS in Syria, some of the missiles went astray in the desert. The Iranian technology is reliable and advanced, and the Iranians are capable of producing and operating simultaneously a large number of drones and cruise missiles.

3. The combination of drones and cruise missiles (for marking targets, final guidance or measuring damage) proved highly effective in hitting pinpoint targets, and possibly as well for non-stationary targets. The photos show the precision that was achieved in the attack. Each one of the spherical gas tankers in the picture was hit in the center. The pictures also show that the strike precision was one meter, much greater than what is possible with simple satellite guidance or setting a pre-calculated ground trajectory.

4. The Saudi military has radar aircraft that should have been able to spot the imminent attack, but this did not happen. Nor did the United States spot signs that would have enabled it to identify the incoming attack (and its origin, which may have been from Iran or from Yemen). These facts mean one of two things: Either the Saudi defense system failed or communication between the Iranian missiles was hidden and hard to discover. Either way, the attack was successful and effective. In addition to the gas tanks that were hit, which may be quickly repaired, the refinery towers were also destroyed. It won’t take just a few days or a couple of weeks to restore the site to full capacity, as the Saudis claim. It will take much longer.

5. How does all of this affect us? The Iranians, or their proxies, showed that they can hit specific targets with great precision and from a distance of hundreds of kilometers. We have to accept the fact that we are now vulnerable to such a strike. Yes, we can also carry out such strikes and perhaps inflict great damage on them, but so what? Does rational deterrence always work in the Middle East? I believe we must make different preparations in the face of such a proven possibility.

What do I mean? For one thing, it is very good that the ammonia tank in Haifa has been mostly emptied (this only took 20 years). It would also be good to bury gas and fuel tanks underground. It would be good for the Pi Glilot fuel terminal to be relocated further from Ramat Aviv. Power stations should be better protected against a direct hit. And, above all, of course, operation of the Dimona nuclear reactor should be halted. It has now be shown to be vulnerable, and the harm it could cause would likely exceed its benefits.

 

IRAN COULD ATTACK ISRAEL, JUST AS IT DID THE SAUDI OIL FIELDS

Iran could attack Israel, just as it did the Saudi oil fields: Galant
By Tovah Lazaroff
Jerusalem Post
October 8, 2019

Iran could use a combination of cruise missiles and advanced drones to attack Israel, in a manner similar to the way it attacked the Saudi oil fields last month, Absorption Minister Yoav Galant told Army Radio.

A Major-General (Res.), Galant was one of a number of Israel’s security cabinet members who took to the airwaves this week to discuss the threat from Iran, in the aftermath of Sunday’s security cabinet meeting that dealt with upgrading Israel’s aerial defense system so that it could better combat such an attack.

Galant said he would not speculate on the likelihood of such an attack, but he noted that if Iran could “shoot in one direction [at Saudi Arabia] from hundreds of kilometers away” it could also “shoot in another direction [at Israel] from hundreds of kilometers away.

“We are looking at what is happening around us,” he continued.

Since May Iran has been increasing its hostile activity in the region, including an unprecedented attack on September 14 on the Saudi oil fields that involved the coordination of dozens of projectiles, missiles and drones, Galant explained.

“Iran is not a theoretical enemy,” Galant said, explaining that its regime has repeatedly threatened to destroy Israel.

Iran has denied attacking Saudi Arabia. But Israel, the United States, Saudi Arabia, France and Germany hold that Iran was behind the attack. This past summer, Israel said it thwarted a potential Iranian drone attack against the Golan Heights.

Iranian threats against Israel should be taken very seriously, said Galant, who explained that the attack on Saudi Arabia relied on low flying projectiles that went undetected and represented a new phase of warfare in the region.

Israel is not Saudi Arabia and its military is capable of handling such an attack, but it is important to be alert and prepared, he said.

Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who is a senior member of the Blue and White party, told Army Radio the attack on the Saudi oil fields was unusual, but did not reveal anything new about Iran’s military capabilities.

“I am well acquainted with the Iranian threat, there has been nothing surprising,” Ya’alon said. “It is true that there is an increase in Iranian activity against the US and the Saudis, either directly or through proxies.”

Ya’alon is not a member of the security council. Israel is not facing a new situation with Iran, Ya’alon said, speculating that the cabinet meeting was unnecessary and therefore more political in nature, given that it came as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in the middle of attempting to form a ruling coalition.

Minister for Regional Cooperation Tzahi HaNegbi told KAN Radio he hoped that no one believed that the Israeli’s top military leaders who took part in the meeting were simply peons in some larger political game.

Israel is capable of defending itself, but Iran appears willing to increasingly take military risks, HaNegbi said. It points the possibility that Iran is losing control or at least its sense of caution. The Saudi attack is particularly relevant to Israel because of Iran’s previous attempt to use drones against Israel, he added.

Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz told Kan Radio the Iranian attack on the Saudi oil field crossed a line.

“‘We are the only ones acting against Iran to protect ourselves,” he said. “When we cross the door of the cabinet meeting, we leave the politics outside.”

 

ARE AIR DEFENSE SYSTEMS READY TO CONFRONT DRONE SWARMS?

Are Air Defense Systems Ready to Confront Drone Swarms?
By Seth Frantzman
Defense News
September 26, 2019

https://www.defensenews.com/global/mideast-africa/2019/09/26/are-air-defense-systems-ready-to-confront-drone-swarms/

JERUSALEM – The attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities on Sept. 14 served as a reality check for countries struggling to define the level of the threat posed by drone swarms and low-altitude cruise missiles.

Now, in a region where that threat is particularly acute, countries are left to reexamine existing air defense technology.

According to the Saudi Defense Ministry, 18 drones and seven cruise missiles were fired at the kingdom in the early hours the day in mid-September.

The drones struck Abqaiq, a facility that the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank had warned the month before was a potential critical infrastructure target. Several cruise missiles fell short and did not hit the facility. Four cruise missiles struck Khurais. Saudi and U.S. officials put blame on Iran, but the government there denies involvement.

What is clear is the failure of existing air defense systems to stop the attack.

The Abqaiq facility’s air defenses reportedly included the American-made Patriot system, Oerlikon GDF 35mm cannons equipped with the Skyguard radar and a version of France’s Crotale called Shahine. Satellite images posted by Michael Duitsman, a research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, shows the setup: Impeded by radar ranges and the facility itself, as well as the speed and angle of the drones and missiles, Saudi air defense apparently did not engage the drones.

“If U.S.-supplied air defenses were not oriented to defend against an attack from Iran, that’s incomprehensible. If they were, but they were not engaged, that’s incompetent. If they simply weren’t up to the task of preventing such precision attacks, that’s concerning,” said Daniel Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies. “And it would seem to validate Israeli concerns that even effective air and missile defense systems, as Israel has, could be overwhelmed by a sufficient quantity of precision-guidance missiles.”

There is a debate about the level of this threat. Brig. Gen. Pini Yungman, a former air defense commander with the Israeli Air Force and current head of Rafael’s air defense systems division, contrasts the drone swarm with a cruise missile with a range of 1,000 kilometers and equipped with a large warhead. “Drones, even drone swarms, are not a strategic threat, even if you take dozens to attack. They carry a very low weight of bomb or ammunition,” Yungman said.

Uzi Rubin, former director of the state-run Israel Missile Defense Organization, doesn’t think what happened in Saudi Arabia could happen in Israel. “We have a smaller area, and that has an advantage in many respects because it is an advantage in controlling our airspace.”

He said the primary challenge in stopping an attack like that in Saudi Arabia is not the ability to shoot down the threats, but rather to detect the low-flying threats. “When it comes to missiles, missile defense sensors will aim above the horizon because the missile is above it and you don’t want clutter. So when it comes to guarding, the issue is things that can sneak in near the ground,” he explained.

The key, then, is to close the gap that potentially exists near the ground.

“It’s not too difficult to close the gap; the Saudis can do it with local defenses,” he asserted. But he acknowledged that the larger the land area, the more difficult it can be to maintain control.

Rubin said shooting down drone swarms can be accomplished with anti-aircraft guns, noting that Iraq downed several Tomahawk cruise missiles in 1991 after discovering their flight path.

“You don’t need anything fancy,” he said – the Russian SA-22 or Pantsir system, with 30mm cannons, missiles and infrared direction finders would do.

“I think once the surprise of the [Sept. 14] attack wears off, then one should sit back and see it is not a very devastating attack.” Like Yungman, he said a long-range precision missile aimed at a strategic facility like a nuclear reactor in a European country would be a more serious threat.

However, Thomas Karako, a senior fellow at the CSIS think tank, told Defense News that the attack suggests a dramatic escalation. “More broadly speaking, it is what I’ve been talking about: The specter of complex, integrated air and missile attack is not theoretical – it has arrived.”

He argues that the Abqaiq attack draws a “bright red line under the problem set” and that “we need a mix of active and passive measures, kinetic and non-kinetic to counter.”

“It’s not a technological problem, it’s an engineering problem,” he said. “You need to look beyond the horizon and look in every direction.” That would include 360 coverage by radar and elevated sensors.

ISRAEL, THE TEST BED

Yungman considers the Middle East, particularly Israel, to be a proving ground. Since the 1940s, a number of different weapons systems, many made in Western countries or the Soviet Union, were used in regional combat.

“In this region, the asymmetric threat became bigger. So in the north there are almost 200,000 short-range rockets and missiles and accurate missiles as a threat” from Hezbollah, he said. “And in Syria we can see accurate, maneuvering ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. So air defense and air missile defense became, from the asymmetric aspect, bigger and bigger, and the air defense system became an issue we need to invest in and develop as fast as we can.”

With the support of the United States, Israel built and tested the Arrow system in the 1990s, becoming one layer of the country’s multilayered system that eventually included Arrow-2, Iron Dome and David’s Sling.

Short of using preemptive airstrikes against drone manufacturers and launch teams, Israel is upgrading its air defense on a “daily basis,” Yungman noted.

“The main threat is not face-to-face [combat] threats – it is rockets, drones, cruise missiles, maneuvering [theater ballistic missiles] and [short-range ballistic missiles] with big and small warheads. When we are talking about thousands or tens of thousands or more, it is very complicated, but it can be defeated,” he said.

One way to confront drone swarms involves soft-kill measures. Because drones are operated by GPS and radio control, jamming or taking control of the drone is one route.

But Rubin said what stands out about the Abqaiq incident is that the homing by the drones appeared to be optical, not GPS-guided.

Also noteworthy, evidence indicates that some of the UAVs weren’t carrying warheads, as they didn’t all explode.

Alternatively, a hard-kill approach might involve using a 5- to 10-kilowatt laser. Lasers can destroy drones up to 2.5 kilometers away, according to Yungman.

The U.S. has looked at lasers for its Stryker armored vehicles, and Germany, Russia and Turkey are among the nation-states developing the technology. Israel’s Rafael has been working on laser interceptors for years, including the Drone Dome laser-based intercept system.

“I can say that from 2 kilometers I could hit a drone the size of a penny,” Yungman claimed.

Another option could be drone-on-drone combat, though that capability is still under development.

While systems like the Iron Dome are combat-proven, questions remain about their ability to confront a drone swarm.

In theory, when using radar and electro-optics, an air defense system should be able to cover the bands necessary to track the drones using several systems and 360-degree phased-array coverage.

“In our research and technology we have the radar and electro-optical and jamming, GPS-denying [capabilities],” Yungman said. “And we have the ability to kill it.”

Rubin described the attack on Saudi Arabia as a kind of “Pearl Harbor,” and it reminded him to an Aug. 17 attack on the Shaybah oil field in Saudi Arabia by Houthi rebels involving 10 drones.

“The surprise was not in the attack, but the audacity,” Rubin recalled, adding that a precision attack by drones doesn’t make the aircraft less vulnerable to air defense systems.

The Stunner interceptor missile of David’s Sling, for instance, has the capability to intercept drones, missiles and other ordnance, including low-flying cruise missiles. But for that to work, there can’t be a gap in the radar coverage, Rubin noted.

Certainly, the recent attack in Saudi Arabia will impact industry and spur development from the key players in this area of defense, according to Karako of CSIS.

“I think you’ll see global demand signal for a variety of means to counter these threats,” he said. “It will spark a lot of solutions.”

 

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