U.S., Saudi Military Forces Failed to Detect Attack on Oil Facilities
Drones and missiles—which officials increasingly believe were launched from Iran—appeared to have flown low to the ground so that they weren’t detected by radar or defense systems.
By Nancy A. Youssef, Gordon Lubold, Summer Said and Dion Nissenbaum
The Wall Street Journal
WASHINGTON—U.S. and Saudi military forces and their elaborate air-defense systems failed to detect the launch of airstrikes aimed at Saudi Arabian oil facilities, allowing dozens of drones and missiles to hit their targets, U.S. officials said.
Saudi and U.S. focus had been largely on the kingdom’s southern border with Yemen, where Riyadh has been fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen’s civil war, the officials said. The attacks, however, originated from Iranian territory in the northern Persian Gulf, people familiar with the investigation into the strikes said.
As Saudi officials review information coming in from the U.S., Kuwait and their own investigators, they are increasingly confident that drones and missiles launched near Iran’s southern border with Iraq flew low to the ground on their way to slamming into the heart of the Saudi oil industry early Saturday.
Investigators have found debris that appears to be Iranian cruise-missile technology, the people familiar with the investigation said.
“Everything points to them,” a Saudi official said, referring to Iran. “The debris, the intel and the points of impact.”
U.S. and Saudi officials didn’t anticipate a strike from inside Iran, officials said, rather than through one of its proxy forces or elite military units.
Saudi air defenses also were monitoring maritime traffic in the Strait of Hormuz, where U.S. officials charge Iran has seized passing oil tankers and flown drones near American war ships.
However, the absence of air-defense coverage left Saudi’s eastern flank largely undefended by any U.S. or Saudi air-defense systems, and reinforced a stark vulnerability as Tehran grows more frustrated over tougher U.S. sanctions. The glaring blind spot also left Saudi Arabia exposed to a threat despite spending billions annually on its defense budget.
“You know, we don’t have an unblinking eye over the entire Middle East at all times,” Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters near London on Tuesday.
The U.S. deployed a Patriot missile system to Prince Sultan Air Base this year, but that system is intended to defend the base, where more than 500 U.S. personnel are deployed, along with the area immediately around it. That system wasn’t within a range to defend against the Saturday attack, U.S. officials said.
Saturday’s attack appeared to come from an Iranian base hundreds of miles away in the northern region of the Persian Gulf. U.S. officials said there had been indications of unusual activity at the base immediately before the attack, but declined to elaborate.
The Houthis have claimed responsibility, but the Trump administration has instead blamed Iran.
In the attack, Iran deployed more sophisticated missile technology that a U.S. official described as very maneuverable and with a lower signature and therefore harder to detect.
Although there was no clear surveillance of the missile launch site, U.S. military officials are examining evidence they said points directly to Iran. Officials said they had two types of evidence: circumstantial evidence that may include communications before the attack, and forensic evidence, which includes wreckage, remnants of missiles and drones, chemicals and blast damage.
American military officials have visited the attack sites in Saudi Arabia to inspect and collect the debris for intelligence, U.S. officials said, finding major components from at least one missile that didn’t fully explode.
Investigators also have found debris that appears to be Iranian cruise-missile technology, the officials said.
There have been discussions within the military and intelligence agencies about declassifying and releasing some of the evidence that led them to suspect Iran, but it could take days before the U.S. can point to definitive evidence, officials said.
Saudi Arabia’s Defense Ministry is expected to release its preliminary findings on Wednesday, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives in the country for meetings in Jeddah with the country’s leaders to discuss the crisis.
Iran has denied that it carried out the attacks and accused the Trump administration of spreading misinformation in an effort to undermine its government.
The U.K. and France, key U.S. allies, say they haven’t seen evidence to support the allegations that Iran carried out the attacks.
“For the moment, France has no proof that would allow us to say that the drones came from this or that place,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said during a visit to Cairo on Tuesday.
On Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and has agreed to send French experts to participate in the investigation, Mr. Macron’s office said.
Germany’s government remains opposed to any escalation and will call for both sides to exercise restraint and conduct diplomacy, German officials said on Tuesday.
One official said Berlin was conducting its own assessment of who was responsible for the strike, but said there were doubts about the initial claim made by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen that they launched 10 drones from Yemen to attack the oil facilities, at least without outside help.
The attacks raised the prospect that simmering regional tensions could escalate into a military conflict between the U.S. and Iran, which have been locked in a standoff since the Trump administration pulled out of the 2015 international nuclear deal with Tehran last year.
They also demonstrated the vulnerability of global energy supply to disruption, shutting down over half of Saudi oil production and resulting in one of the biggest oil-price increases ever record on Monday.
The U.S. has taken the lead in providing security for the Persian Gulf monarchies for decades in part out of a strategy of protecting the world’s oil supply.
The USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group has been operating in the region since May. The aircraft carrier carries roughly 5,000 troops and thousands more are part of the additional ships accompanying the Lincoln. When it departs, it will be replaced by another carrier strike group, a U.S. defense official said.
On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia’s cabinet released a statement asking the international community for support in responding to the attack. Riyadh didn’t mention Iran, though it has rejected claims of responsibility by Houthi rebels, who said the attack was a retaliatory strike in their four-year war with a Saudi-led military coalition. Riyadh said on Monday that it would ask the United Nations to send weapons inspectors to investigate the attack, but hadn’t done so as of Tuesday.
Saudi officials said they had found cruise-missile parts at the attack sites that are similar in design to a new weapon, known as Quds, used by Houthi rebels in Yemen to attack southern Saudi Arabia. Kuwait, to the north of the attack sites, is investigating reports of a drone sighting in Kuwait City ahead of the Saudi strikes, suggesting that the attack had been launched from the north, an area that includes southwestern Iran.
Iran has said the attack was an act of self-defense by the Houthis against the Saudi coalition.
The U.S. contends that Iran has been lashing out against the U.S. since May, after the Trump administration reimposed crippling sanctions that have tipped its economy into recession.
The U.S. says Iran has targeted Saudi oil infrastructure such as tankers and pipelines. Iran denies targeting any Saudi facilities, but touted its downing of a U.S. drone over the Strait of Hormuz this summer.
Lawmakers from both parties in Washington have expressed reservations about the prospects of an American military strike on Iran.
On Tuesday, Sen. Mark Warner (D, Va.), told The Wall Street Journal that he would want to see the U.S. build a broad coalition for any response.
“I am very concerned with the administration, which seems trying to ratchet this up,” he said. “We don’t even have a mutual defense agreement with Saudi Arabia, so on what legal basis would this president try to attack Iran? We need to get the facts together first.”
The U.S. has sold Saudi Arabia billions of dollars in weaponry, including missile-defense systems.
Saudi Arabia has used American Patriot systems to shoot down Houthi weapons fired from Yemen at the nation’s capital, Riyadh. The Houthi threat has forced Saudi Arabia to focus missile-defense systems on its southern border with Yemen, leaving other areas of the country without the same level of protection. Saudi Arabia has also struggled to combat the threat posed by increasingly effective Houthi drone attacks.
“The capabilities of rogue states, nonstate actors to use tools like drones—we’re in a brave new world here,” said Mr. Warner. “I worry at times we may be spending too much time and resources on 20th century stuff when increasingly conflict in the 21st century will be cyber, will be disinformation, will be use of drones, will be in the space domain.”
President Trump has stopped short of accusing Iran of carrying out the attack. But he said that Iran appeared to be the most likely attacker and vowed that U.S. officials would release more details when they could.
“They know something that most people don’t know, as to where it came from, who did it,” Mr. Trump said on Monday. “We’ll figure that out very quickly. We pretty much already know.”
Mr. Trump, who called off an American airstrike on Iran in June after having reservations about the attack, said that he doesn’t want war with Tehran, but will act if necessary.
“I’m not looking to get into new conflict,” he said. “But sometimes you have to.”
Mr. Trump said that he expected Riyadh to play a leading role in any response.
“The Saudis want very much for us to protect them, but I say, well, we have to work,” he said on Monday. “This was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us.”
—Sune Engel Rasmussen, Dustin Volz and Matthew Dalton
contributed to this article.