ATTACK ON SAUDI’S OIL INSTALLATIONS SIGNALS DRAMATIC CHANGES IN FUTURE WARS
Ducking a multi-million-dollar US Patriot air defense system, ten small drones worth at the most several tens of thousands of U.S. dollars caused catastrophic damage to two major Saudi oil installations on September 14. The attack on Aramco’s facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia signals the beginning of a fundamentally new type of war.
The attack reduced Saudi Arabia’s daily oil production by about 5.7 million barrels—nearly 5% of the world’s output. Reflecting geopolitical risks and concerns about a global economic slowdown, the Dow Jones average fell by US$142 on September 16. That the oil-rich kingdom with the world’s largest oil facility allowed itself to fall victim to the attack by just ten small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) caught many people off guard.
Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi Shi’ite rebels claimed responsibility, asserting that ten UAVs had been employed, but this came into question from the outset. The key question is whether these small UAVs could have covered the distance—some 1,300 kilometers (800plus miles)—from the Houthi-controlled region in Yemen to the target in Saudi’s eastern province.
U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo tweeted on September 14 that there was “no evidence the drones originated in Yemen,” suggesting Iran’s involvement. Arriving in Jeddah four days later, on September 18, Pompeo condemned Iran in an airport conversation with members of the press before conferring with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Pompeo described the attack as “an act of war against them (Saudi Arabia) directly.”
Keeping step with Washington, the Saudi Ministry of Defense released concrete evidence of Iran’s involvement. Based on the debris collected at the attack sites, the ministry pointed out that a total of 18 UAVs and seven cruise missiles had been used in the attack. The missiles were identified as Iranian-made Ya-Alis and the UAVs as Delta Wings, also made in Iran.
The ministry also announced that it believes the September 14 attack was carried out from Iran or Iraq in the north, not from Yemen in the south. With a range of 700 kilometers (approximately 440 miles), the Ya-Ali missiles would not have reached their targets from Yemen, a spokesman explained.
On September 19, the Iranian Foreign Minister warned that any attack on his country by Saudi Arabia or the US would immediately result in an “all-out war.”
China’s Plans to Employ UAVs in Wresting Senkakus and Okinawa
According to The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), the US and Saudi Arabia deploy “the worst’s most advanced” air defense system. And yet, the Saudis failed to intercept the drones, or the missiles. A threat has emerged which existing defense systems cannot effectively cope with. Japan must not view this latest development as someone else’s problem.
With a squadron of more than 1,000 drones, China is at the forefront of the world’s UAV development. In 2017, it flew a total of 119 AI-incorporated unmanned multi-copters, all of which reportedly performed their missions satisfactorily.
What will happen if China should deploy UAVs in their operations to wrest the Senkaku Islands or Okinawa? China made reference to “the defense of the Senkaku Islands” for the first time in its national defense white paper released on July 24. The Chinese also have their eyes fixed on the Goto Islands, Nagasaki Prefecture, beyond the Senkakus and Okinawa. On July 25, a Chinese ship engaged in an illicit undersea survey in the Japanese exclusive economic zone off Goto City, continuing its survey for over four hours despite repeated warnings from a Japanese coast guard patrol ship.
Nobody can say for sure China will not attack Japan in its pursuit of our land and resources. But do we have the means to protect ourselves? Obviously not. The Saudi oil attack is a stark warning to Japan that we cannot afford to not take seriously this imminent threat to our peace and security.
Getting back to the Saudi attack, who are the real culprits? On June 13, the very day Prime Minister Shinzo Abe conferred with Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a Japanese tanker loaded with crude oil bound for Japan was attacked in the Strait of Hormuz, as if to mock Abe’s peace overture. The US immediately blamed the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, but Iran denied any responsibility, as in the case with the recent Saudi incident. It is still not clear who is accountable for the September 14 attack.
The Revolutionary Guards Corps is the the most powerful institution in Iran. If they executed the tanker attack to time with the Abe-Kamenei talks, should one assume that this organization made up of Islamic extremists is not following their supreme leader’s orders? But if the attack was in fact at Khamenei’s direction, what should one read from that?
Iran and North Korea are closely watching what moves the US will make next. They are ready to press forward—or take a step back—depending on what they detect in America’s posture. Behind the latest Saudi attack, I see Teheran’s decision that the time was ripe for action. How then did Teheran reach this decision? Commented WSJ in its September 16 editorial entitled An attack on Saudi oil production shows John Bolton was right:
“…it’s no coincidence this (likely Iranian involvement in the attacks on Saudi oil production) happened as Mr. Trump is considering a softer approach to Teheran.”
John Bolton, who left the White House as Trump’s national security advisor on September 10, was quoted as sternly criticizing Trump in a private luncheon in New York on September 18: “Trump failed to take stronger measures after Iran attacked an American drone (on June 20). He may have stopped Iran from damaging Saudi oil fields if they had retaliated to the incident.”
In other words, Bolton believes Teheran viewed “Trump’s restraint as its victory” in escalating the tension as it saw fit.
Sea Changes Expected in Middle East Situation
Bolton apparently believes that Trump’s negotiations with Iran and North Korea are “doomed to failure.”
On September 18, Trump declared that he would announce “significant new” sanctions on Iran “over the next 48 hours” in response to the attack he holds Teheran accountable for. “We’ll be adding some very significant sanctions onto Iran,” Trump told reporters in Los Angeles, quickly adding: “There’s the ultimate option (war) and there are options that are a lot less than that.” But at the same time that Trump threatened Teheran with strong words, it was clear that he is reluctant to take military action.
Robert O’Brien, who has succeeded Bolton, is much closer to Pompeo in thinking. Pompeo, who follows Trump’s directives faithfully, unlike Bolton, is conciliatory. With all of his subordinates who had stood in his way thus removed, Trump will now readily pursue a “Trumpian” foreign policy synonymous with “deal is diplomacy,” an approach that reflects his weaknesses and over-confidence and is devoid of well-thought-out strategies.
Professor Tadae Takubo, an expert on international strategy who serves as Deputy Director of the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals (JINF), a privately funded think tank that I head in Tokyo, had this to say:
“Should Trump fail to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons by assuming a ‘soft approach that values dialogue,’ the Middle East situation will likely undergo a sea change. Don’t forget that Iran has vowed to obliterate Israel. In order to counter a nuclear Iran, Israel will have to enhance cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, most likely getting both of them under its own nuclear umbrella.”
While America’s geopolitical influence will likely see a relative weakening going forward, that of Russia and China will likely increase in what fundamentally is a zero sum game. Japan would be wise to continue supporting positive aspects of Trump’s foreign policy while simultaneously harboring reservations about his overall policy. This is the only path for Japan to choose. One example of a positive aspect of Trump’s foreign policy is his decision spelled out in December 2017 to get tough with China.
At the time, he announced a grand national security strategy, reflecting his determination to not underestimate China’s hegemonic intentions or its menace. Trump’s strategy expressed then reflected America’s traditional policy of valuing its allies. Even if the shape of future wars should change dramatically, Japan must continue to let its actions demonstrate that safeguarding its national interests can best be achieved through enhanced cooperation among its allies. (The End)
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 870 in the October 3, 2019 issue of The Weekly Shincho)