Saudi Arabia Drone Attack: Sign of Changing Character of Hybrid War
Brig Narender Kumar, SM, VSM (retd.)

The Houthi militants carried out an audacious "large-scale" attack with 10 drones targeting Saudi Aramco oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais.1 Even in the past Houthi rebels had attacked Saudi Arabia but the precision and scale of the attack has not been so enormous. The attack has disabled the largest crude processing facility of Saudi Arabia there by disrupting oil supply by almost 50 percent. The CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen said, “there have been more than 200 drone attacks launched by Houthi rebels from Yemen into Saudi Arabia, and none have been as effective as Saturday's attack”. 2 The US and Saudi agencies claim that the missile and drone technology has been transferred by Iran to Houthi rebels. The swarm drone attack is a potent alternative to retaliate against Saudi led coalition that has been carrying out indiscreet bombing of Houthi held positions. The attack has come at a time when Saudi led coalition is weakening with the pull out of UAE from the campaign against Houthi rebels and relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia are going south.

Wim Zwijnenburg, a senior researcher on drones at a Dutch peace organisation said, “The drones gave the Houthis an edge because they were cheap to produce, hard to detect and shoot down, and able to cause damage and disruption hugely disproportionate to their cost. While the Houthis’ exact capabilities are not known, they have developed over time.” 3 Some rough estimate suggests that Houthi rebels have acquired drone technology with the range of close to 900 miles. So far the location of launch of attack has not been ascertained, but whether this attack is launched from within Saudi Arabia, Iraq, sea based platform or even from Yemen, the fact is that war in Yemen is set to change. So far, Saudi Arabia had managed to keep its territory out of the battlespace by carefully maneuvering the proxies to fight their wars beyond their shores, but with escalation of drone war, Saudi Arabia may not be able to insulate their population and critical infrastructure from the devastating effects of war in Syria and Yemen. Wim Zwijnenburg said, “The drones used by Houthi may have cost $15,000 or less to build”.4 But the damage these drones have caused is billions of dollars and disabled a major oil field and processing facility of Saudi Arabia. The low cost attack has disrupted 50 percent production of Saudi Arabia and approximately 5 percent of global oil production.

Why drones are becoming more preferred choice of weapons to the terrorists or insurgents? They enable states and non-state actors to reduce the risk of their foot soldiers/ cadres, can be used with precision to avoid civilian casualties, are cost effective and can respond against state aggression without much preparation. This is a war of technology and the warring faction that has the technological edge will dominate this war. Drones can hit the intended targets if these have stealth and ability to fly either close to the stratosphere till they descend down over the objective or fly along the nap of the earth. Similarly, a surveillance system that is able to detect nonmetallic and non-reflective material as small as one meter is required to detect such high tech drones. Drone attacks can be neutralised by kinetic or electronic kill. Iran was able to shoot down one of the most sophisticated Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), RQ-4A Global Hawk, of the US in Persian Gulf that could fly as high as 100000 feet above the sea level. Iran had supposedly used Russian made S-300 missiles to bring down the US UAV. Russia had displayed technological prowess by neutralizing 13 drones by soft and hard kill in Syria in March 2018 by timely detection and use of multiple air defence systems.

Changing Character of Hybrid War in Yemen

This attack has highlighted that hybrid wars are irreversible and has the potential to escalate beyond the territorial confines of perceived battle space. These attacks have shown that low cost technology can cause unprecedented collateral damage and also ensures deniability of states or state sponsored non-state actors covertly engaged in the conflict. Yemen war is evolving as a lethal hybrid war where regulars and irregulars are operating in the same battle space, and proliferation of technology is changing the character of war from low intensity to high intensity in a multi-domain contest. Drone attacks have caused disruption in sea lines of communication, oil production and has severely impacted economies globally. Gulf of Oman and Red Sea will become graveyard of global economies if this war is allowed to escalate. One of the major implications of hybrid war is that it cannot be restricted in time, space and domain. Escalation is inherent in such wars and technology has made it possible to expand the battlespace through contact and non- contact warfare.

The most striking character of war in Yemen is that regular and irregular forces are blurred into same force in same battle space. In the instant case such a sophisticated attack cannot be executed by Houthi rebels unless they had support of a state to provide them with technological knowhow, satellite navigation, precision guidance and near-stealth capability to surprise Saudi and the US air defence network.

The second important character of hybrid war is alignment and realignment of stakeholders based on their objectives. The Saudi led alliance is showing the signs of fracture. Qatar and UAE have withdrawn their foot prints from Northern Yemen, leaving Saudi Arabia to fight lone battle against Houthi and Iran backed Shia militias. One of the reasons for UAE to drawdown from Yemen is that, it does not want to be the battlefield if Iran and the US are locked in a fierce war in Gulf of Oman and Persian Gulf. Qatar withdrew due to ideological and diplomatic standoff with Saudi Arabia. UAE does not want to get dragged between the US-Saudi Arabia and Iran conflict at a time when there are signs of slowing of economy. The UAE, unlike Saudi Arabia, is refraining from blaming Iran for attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman. 5 Therefore, UAE want to ensure that it does not become a target of terror or drone strikes of Houthi rebels.

It is evident that Iran backed Houthi rebels, having achieved success, will continue to target Saudi Arabia as long as bombing of Houthi position by Saudi Arabia continues. The sophistication achieved with every strike by Houthi rebels is phenomenal. These attacks need to be carefully examined in the light of the fact that such a vast surveillance network of Saudi Arabia and the US failed to detect the launch site and in flight detection (since these drones are supposed to have been launched from Yemen). It evaded entire air defence system along the flight path and also those that are deployed to protect the oil processing facilities and oil field at Abqaiq and Khurais. The question also comes up, how these drones were navigated because they would have taken detour to avoid air defence systems along their long flight paths. There is also a possibility that these drones may have also been launched from multiple sites instead of one to create deception. Drones could have been controlled from satellite if they were launched from Iraq, Iran or even from Yemen since some estimate suggest that these drones would have been launched from a distance ranging from 300 miles to 850 miles. Jeffrey Price, an aviation management professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver said, “The Saudi Arabia attacks appear to demonstrate, even a nation with a sophisticated military and a large budget for defense is still vulnerable.6 There is a danger of this technology falling in the hands of other terror organisations for a cost and that puts the global community at greater risk. India, Israel and Afghanistan are at greater risk if this technology is transferred at a cost by Houthi or Shia militias operating from Yemen to Taliban, LeT or even Al Qaeda/ ISIS.

One must keep in view who will be the biggest beneficiary of the escalation of war in Gulf of Oman and Persian Gulf? Or in other words who will benefit if oil fields and oil pipelines are hit in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar and even in Iran? Most countries are set to lose momentum in economic growth because in that case oil prices are set to rise. Europe, Asia and even Africa will be effected with the new form of hybrid war. However, Russia and South American oil producing countries are set to gain with the rise in oil prices. In addition Russian air defence and surveillance technology will be in demand since the US air defence umbrella failed to defend high value targets of Saudi Arabia.

Swarm Drone Attacks Lessons for India

Most surprising aspect of the drone attacks in Saudi Arabia was that air defence systems of Saudi Arabia and the US could neither jam nor shoot down slow flying drones that hit the targets with precision. These drones would have either used satellite based GPS navigation system or on board computer navigation. Moreover, the control system also had the exact coordinates of the targets and the detailed information of air defence network, otherwise these drones would have either missed the targets or would have been detected if flying over the radar coverage areas. One of the major lessons is that non-state or state sponsored non-state actors have acquired sophisticated systems that can impact global economy and cause collateral damage of unprecedented nature. The military has more options to combat drones, but some technologies such as jamming radio signals or firing weapons aren’t an option in civilian environments.7 World is likely to see many more of such attacks, and in particular, coordinated attacks on multiple targets, possibly in tandem with a cyberattack component.8

The threat in Indian context is real with Pakistan sponsored non-state actors looking for opportunities to cause collateral damage within Kashmir and even across India. Pakistan based terror groups have used the ‘fidayeen’ on Indian Parliament, Mumbai 26/11 and next could be drones (from air). The drone attack can target high value national leaders, critical infrastructure, power grid system, oil refineries, military installations and population centres. Drones are highly versatile and can deliver explosives, biological, chemical agents, and also act as the eyes and ears of the terrorists.

Therefore, radar surveillance, air defence, electronic warfare and the human-intelligence is vital to defend against the drone attacks. The capabilities required on the ground to counter drone attacks are: Layered radar coverage to detect drones; electronic capabilities to gain control of the predator drone to ensure forced crash or disruption in communication and navigation to disorient the flight of drones; and finally, their destruction by kinetic means. The Armed Forces should determine capabilities, precautionary protocols and designation of system that should engage the predator/ rogue drones. Given the diverse nature of terrorism in the Indian context, the threat is very real. Ignoring the emerging trend and their potential can result in huge collateral damage. India should study the possibilities of such attacks and develop capabilities to prevent and defeat such attacks before they manifest on ground. A conceptual understanding and a systems approach will be required to prevent, disrupt, and defeat attacks by such autonomous weapon system.9


The attack in Saudi Arabia is a classic case of sophisticated hybrid war that has deniability, possible involvement of states, active role of state sponsored non-state actors, and optimum utilization of technology to expand the battle space that affect not only warring factions but the global community as a whole. Randy Larsen, a former professor and department head at the US military's National War College, told Bloomberg, "This has the potential to be as significant as Pearl Harbour.”10

Important aspects of such hybrid wars are that no nation want to take sides in this ambiguous war and risk inviting unpredictable adversaries who are amorphous and invisible. It will be difficult for Saudi Arabia to respond to the swarm drone attacks. In either case Saudis will invite more such attacks that will directly impact economy, security of population centres and constant threat of attack. Even if Saudi Arabia or the US want to retaliate, what do they attack and where do they strike? Helpless civilians and ruins? Should they negotiate and accept it as their surrender to the non-state actors? What is the guarantee that even after negotiating with one faction, others will abide by the agreement? Therefore, such wars are irreversible and have no defined end state. Technology has to be defeated by an integrated approach consisting of kinetic and non-kinetic means.

  1. Nada Altaher, Jennifer Hauser and Ivana Kottasová, Yemen's Houthi rebels claim a 'large-scale' drone attack on Saudi oil facilities, September 15, 2019.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ben Hubbard, Palko Karasz and Stanley Reed,Two Major Saudi Oil Installations Hit by Drone Strike, and U.S. Blames Iran, The New York Times, September 14, 2019.
  4. Ibid.
  5. James Dorsey, UAE Withdraws From Yemen, Lobe Log, July 6, 2019
  6. Alan Levin, Drone Attack on Saudi Oil Field Seen as Realizing Worst Fears, Bloomberg, September 16,
  7. 2019

  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Narender Kumar, Drones New Weapons of terror Attacks, USI Strategic perspective, march 23, 2018.
  11. Patrick Knox, OIL BLITZ Saudi Arabia drone attack – Iran accused of launching cruise missiles and 20 drone strikes in ‘Pearl Harbour-style’ attack that devastated world’s oil supply, The Sun, September 16, 2019.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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