We'd be foolish to ignore Iranian missiles aimed at Arab oil
The Iranian missile threat and the effort to create defensive counter-measures will form an increasingly prominent part of the energy security narrative in the Gulf. Time to get thinking
In early January the US announced an agreement to supply the UAE with two Terminal High Altitude Defence Batteries (THAAD), 96 missiles, and 30 years’ worth of spare parts. The deal which had been under negotiation for several years was worth $3.5 billion dollars, and represented the first foreign sale of the advanced missile defence system. The deal was completed in tandem with the announcement of a $30 billion arms sale of 84 F-15's and upgrade kits to Saudi Arabia.
Both sales come at a time of increasingly tense saber rattling in the Gulf. In the wake of increasing economic concerns at home and an impending round of new international sanctions, Iran ratcheted up its bellicose rhetoric, taking aim at the Strait of Hormuz, and declaring their ability to blockade it at will. This set off alarm bells in Washington and throughout the region and sparked a crisis that is still being played out today.
However, the UAE missile defence sale represents a key shift of attention away from conventional security issues such as this, and highlights an often overlooked aspect of regional energy security: ballistic missile threat to energy infrastructure in the Gulf.
The Islamic Republic is believed to possess a growing arsenal of reliable short-range ballistic missiles, and medium-range ballistic missiles. The most prolific being the Shahab-2 and the Shahab-3 with ranges of 500-700km and 1,000-1,300km respectively. These missiles are relatively simple and are a blend of adapted SCUD platforms, and derivatives of the North Korean No-Dong system.
While Iran claims that its missiles are highly maneuverable and have advanced counter-measures, the reality is that even without such advances the threat is severe. Considering the incredibly short distances between Iran and the major Gulf oil refineries, natural gas processing plants, and sea terminals, the missiles themselves can be relatively ‘dumb’ and still accomplish their mission.
A missile launched from inside Iran, from an area of intermediate distance from the Gulf, would hit its target in roughly four minutes: a very small window for detection and counter-action. Meanwhile, the prospect of more advanced, accurate, and complex missiles would substantially increase the problem of developing an effective security umbrella.
In many ways the possibility of Gulf energy installations being directly targeted by a ballistic missile offensive is even greater than that posed to the Strait of Hormuz. While the strait would likely be 'cleared' of Iranian combatants within a matter of days, Iranian missiles would pose a sustained threat that could last several weeks.
Iran possesses a substantial mix of stationary, road-mobile, and disassembled transferable weapons in a variety of locations. It might take weeks for strike missions to identify and destroy all Iranian launch-able and active missile variants. Such an endeavor would also require the targeting and degradation of the Iranian air defence grid, taking a substantial amount of time and providing a window for sustaining the missile offensive.
It is worth noting that the last time the US and its allies had to deal with the specter of missile attacks it had the benefit of Kuwait acting as a tripwire which allowed for months of preparation and buildup. The beginning of a series of missile attacks may not offer such an opportunity, making the threat highly versatile, dangerous, and difficult to contain quickly.
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