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Saudi Arabia Shuts Down About Half Its Oil Output After Drone Strikes (wsj.com)
206 points by xoa 31 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 183 comments

An unusual (and worrying) part about this incident is how drones are being used, not with an explicit military goal in mind, but rather for the purpose of economic strangulation.

Like terrorist operatives, drones are relatively cheap and expendible.

But unlike terrorism, which seeks to grind away at the enemy's resolve, this kind of attack attempts to deprive an enemy of the money needed to fund its operations.

Like terrorism, even the threat of loss of key infrastructure can have consequences (e.g, the interest rate a country is forced to pay as risk premium). Also as ub terrorism, the targets are "soft" and therefore difficult to defend.

It looks like there's something new here that could serve as a model in other conflicts. The most vulnerable players are those who have put all their economic eggs in one basket.

That is absolutely a military goal, and a far worthier one than terrorist attacks against civilians. One might note that Saudi Arabia has been economically strangling people in Yemen by basically shutting down the ports and restricting the distribution of food and medicine and knowingly inflicting a horrific famine (PBS Newshour has had especially detailed coverage of this conflict and this is one of the few contexts where TV news can do a superior job to print analysis).

While it's unwise to apply moral analysis to military conflicts because of the potential for both self-deception and ideological excess, this incident strikes me as richly deserved.

It should be recognised that the USA and its Coalition partners have been supporting Saudi efforts to strangle/starve the Yemeni people.

We are on the wrong side this time, folks.

You've just described air power. Except now it's actually possible to destroy industrial facilities instead of maybe hitting a city.

We've had operational cruise missiles that could reliably destroy industrial facilities for over 30 years. There's nothing new here, the technology is just gradually becoming cheaper and more widely distributed.

What prevented that from being possible before?

You needed airplanes, and antiaircraft weapons were so much cheaper. With drones the calculation is the other way around. It completely changes the face of war, offensive warfare is now possible again. Ernst Jünger said something similar when he witnessed the first tanks in World War 1.

Seems like drones preference the attacker over the defender on a tactical scale (because they're cheap and numerous) but preference local warfare over global warfare on a strategic scale (because to get that cheapness you need to sacrifice range & performance). They favor insurgent groups over power projection. Supply lines for offensive warfare also get more challenging with drones, because you have this great weapon that doesn't require any people on the front lines to use, but it still requires a great deal of manpower on the back line to service and maintain.

I'd say the analogous technology is really the musket. On the battlefield it gave an advantage over knights, cavalry, and swordsmen, but it also gave that advantage to unskilled groups of militia rather than organized fiefdoms that could field large numbers of mounted knights and the support staff needed for them. The result was the Renaissance and birth of nationalism, as local, commercial organizations gained power over the feudal empires that had governed them.

> Seems like drones preference … local warfare over global warfare on a strategic scale (because to get that cheapness you need to sacrifice range & performance)

It seems relatively straightforward to deliver drones via any kind of existing global scale transit available today (on the one end, C130s, or on the other end, ICBMs?). A predator drone (not the latest tech) weighs ~5000 lbs and the MIRV Mark 5 SLBMs can launch 8x ~800 lb "W88" warheads, for a combined payload weight of around 6400 lbs. (I'm not super familiar with any of this and might be missing something; just skimmed wikipedia to see if I could make the ICBM math work out.)

> offensive warfare is now possible again

You mean defensive. Where American firepower at the hands of Saudis completely fucking up your country can be finally challenged with a response that might make them reconsider war. Where it was just a beat down like America is using to doing.

Who knows maybe this thing spirals out of control and destroys all of Saudi Arabia, when you are dealing with these sorts of political realities you reconsider things like destroying the entire country of Yemen because you don't like the politics of its majority or its rebel government.

> It completely changes the face of war

These changes are always really, really interesting. One of my favorite moments similar to this is the Battle of Nicopolis [1] between the Ottomans led by Bayezid I and a Crusader force which included many Western cavalry forces. The much more mobile and easy-moving Ottomans were no match for the Western (especially French) forces who were accustomed with using their heavy armor during battle:

> The French knights thus continued up the hill, though accounts state that more than half were on foot by this point, either because they had been unhorsed by the lines of sharpened stakes or had dismounted to pull up stakes. Struggling in their heavy armor, they reached the plateau on the top of the slope, where they had expected to find fleeing Turkish forces, but instead found themselves facing a fresh corps of sipahis, whom Bayezid had kept in reserve. As the sipahis surged forward in the counterattack sounding trumpets, banging kettle drums and yelling "God is great!", the desperation of their situation was readily apparent to the French and some knights broke and fled back down the slope.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Nicopolis

Over 660 years before the Battle of Nicopolis, the French under Charles Martel defeated the Umayyad Caliphate at the Battle of Tours[1] using phalanxes of heavy infantry against lightly armored Arabian calvary. The difference being that the French forces purposefully took a defensive position on top of several hills instead of initiating an attack up them.

The battles are an interesting echo through history. Perhaps the lesson is simply "hold the high ground".

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Tours

> Perhaps the lesson is simply "hold the high ground".

One could think so, but then about 150 years later the Hungarian chivalry (and pretty much the Hungarian kingdom itself) was annihilated by the same Ottomans at the battle of Mohacs, where there was no "high ground" involved. From the wiki page [1]:

> Hungary built up an expensive but obsolete army, structured similarly to that of King Francis I at the Battle of Pavia and mostly reliant on old fashioned heavily armoured knights on armoured horses (gendarme knights).

By that time the Ottomans had already started making heavy use of artillery (which is also one of the main reasons they had taken Constantinople back in 1453):

> The Ottoman army was a more modern force built around artillery and the elite, musket-armed Janissaries. The remainder consisted of feudal Timarli cavalry and conscripted levies from Rumelia and the Balkans

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Moh%C3%A1cs

The failure of gendarme knights at Mohács is probably the most salient point to the original topic. The Hungarian forces were clearly obsolete. That fact had been profoundly demonstrated over a year earlier with the French failure at Pavia. So why did they still field the forces they did?

If my understanding is correct, the existence of gendarme knights was deeply entwined not only with the concept of nobility in Europe, but with the economic foundations of Feudalism. The structure of which was primarily focused on a how a unit of population could field a single knight into battle. In short, a different army would require more than just additional training or logistics, but an underlying societal shift. Just as Feudalism rose because Martel recognized the effectiveness of armored cavalry, it would take the adoption of gunpowder, which specifically made armored cavalry ineffective, before there was need for another restructuring: one that led to professional armies and eventually nation states.

It would be pure hubris to believe we're done with these sorts of societal shifts. Just as nuclear weapons made large-scale warfare between nation states pointless, we may find that drones, and other weapons that allow cheap, asymmetrical force projection, may make even smaller engagements an exercise in mutually assured destruction. And that could challenge the entire nature of the American military-industrial complex and its global facsimiles.

In this case, the French were “no match for” the Turks, as they were not able to put up a fight against the Turks.

You can't just have an AA gun on every street corner; air power is so powerful precisely because of its mobility and strategic reach

You don't need an airplane, you simply need a cruise missiles.

Technology. Now with relatively cheap drones you can have surveillance, bomb delivery, and you can mostly hide and not risk your operatives loosing their lives. Before there was the annoying bit of having to brainwash them to blow themselves up along with the bomb they where delivering on foot, by car or boat.

Air power wasn't usually available to smaller players in capacity large enough to be reckoned with.

Basically it momentarily eliminates the advantage of supreme military power; "you got F16s", and you spend $1.8m [0] for each cruise missile, and we will make you never sleep again with 100k (I have no idea about the types of drones and their costs - just throwing a number).

Similarly, once can disrupt (peacefully - no deaths) civil aviation, e.g. use of drone in Heathrow airport. [1], [2]

[0]: https://www.johnlaurits.com/2018/cost-of-tomahawk-missiles-t...

[1]: https://dronedj.com/2019/08/14/climate-change-activists-shut...

[2]: https://voyagesafriq.com/2019/01/08/heathrow-airport-drone-s...

World War II bombing was extremely inaccurate for a number of reasons including heavy losses during daytime bombing unless you went high. Post 1950's SAM really made things fun. It's not until the stealth bomber makes SEAD work and the cruise missile that you can pinpoint things.

> not with an explicit military goal in mind

Um, the Houthis are under a multi-year campaign of strikes by Saudi Arabia. It's an actual war. This was definitely a military strike. It also levels the playing field. If you are a "tribal" with no money, you can go against vastly wealthy countries hellbent on your destruction who are actively slaughtering your people.

It's a hell of a lot better approach than the other low cost tribal defense, which is biological weapons.

I mean, it's not really that new. Saudi Arabia, with our help, has been turning an economic vise on Yemen throughout the conflict, using the weapons we supply to embargo their ports and choke off the flow of goods, even essentials like food and medicine.

The only difference here is that the relatively much weaker combatant found a unique chokepoint in Saudi infrastructure that was easy to exploit. You couldn't, say, cut off an entire country's food supply with drones in this way. My suspicion is that it won't be too difficult for the Saudis to harden their defenses against this particular kind of attack.

SA's economy is -AFAIK- mostly / completely dependent on natural ressources.

Given that SPOF, one can't help but think of the IRA's threat to Margaret Thatcher : "[...] we only have to be lucky once – you will have to be lucky always."

It's been trying to both diversify and privatize, but progress is very very slow. Probably fear of instability, IMO.

"The petroleum sector accounts for roughly 87% of budget revenues, 42% of GDP, and 90% of export earnings."


Anecdotally, I met far more Saudis when I lived in Seattle than I did when I lived in Houston. I wonder if that was part of the diversification effort.

The Saudis don't need to go to Houston to learn about petroleum. Their domestic universities are world-class on the subject, for obvious reasons.

I don't recall stating that they were going to Houston to learn about petroleum. There are plenty of other reasons most of the world's major energy companies have their North American headquarters in Houston.

Speaking of diversification, what’s Houston’s plan?

From an outsider's perspective, it seems to be more robust than some other cities.

It went from being an oil town to an energy town a few decades ago.

It has massive investments in the medical sector, with 60 institutions generating $25 billion annually.† That's bigger than the GDP of Iceland coming out of just one neighborhood.

NASA Mission Control is still there, and it's the headquarters of NASA's manned spaceflight programs. Though I know there was disappointment that a lot of the Mars stuff went to Alabama.

Shipping has been huge there since the early 1900's. It's the #1 port in America for foreign cargo, #2 in overall cargo, and #16 in the world.†† The Port of Houston also added a cruise ship terminal that seems busy.

I know insurance was becoming a large sector there at one time, but I haven't looked into it lately.

One thing it never really got a handle on was tourism. I think that's because it has a lot more locally-born residents than many large American cities, so it's very inward-looking. But even that is growing. The museums alone logged something like seven million visitors last year.

Overall, it seems to be doing well. To put it in perspective, New York is the only city in America with more Fortune 500 headquarters. The only thing Houston has to worry about is hurricanes.


†† https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Port_of_Houston

Just leery about their tech scene if I were to take a job there

Or Kissinger's aphorism that (I'm paraphrasing a bit here), "the military loses if it doesn't win, while the rebels win if they don't lose."

There's a relevant Latin quote from the era of the Punic Wars (if I recall correctly), Qui vincit non est victor nisi victus fatebur - "The victor is not victorious if the vanquished does not consider himself so."

> not with an explicit military goal in mind, but rather for the purpose of economic strangulation.

In the context of a military conflict, which is what is going on, this was a bone fide target.

Isn't this also the strategy of every military at this point? Take out power and infrastructure, starve the opponent into submission?

> An unusual (and worrying) part about this incident is how drones are being used, not with an explicit military goal in mind, but rather for the purpose of economic strangulation.

Economic strangulation is a military goal. In fact, most other military goals are merely methods of positioning better for economic strangulation, which is pretty nearly the ultimate military goal.

Even diversified countries are vulnerable to similar shenanigans. There are a lot of vulnerable points in modern society. Destroy a couple of electricity substations or power line towers and you could paralyze cities housing millions.

These kinds of targets are also really hard to defend and comparatively easy to destroy. Hell, you could probably drive around tossing copper wires over power lines and inflict gigantic economic damage that way. (You would also probably die)

This is classic war fare and not terrorism. The Saudi's have made a mess of the conflict in Yemen, which is more or less part of a bigger proxy war that also involves the US and Iran. On paper it's rebels vs what passes for a government there locally. But in practice it's Iran sponsored weaponry vs. Us & EU sponsored weaponry. If you look at a map, the reasons are obvious. The Saudi's are connected to international waters via two narrow straights that border on Iran and Yemen. Yemen is strategically relevant to Iran for this reason because it allows them to isolate the Saudis.

What Iran is demonstrating here is that they can put the squeeze on oil supplies. The wars in the middle east are fundamentally oil centric. It's about who gets to supply oil to the world in exchange for vast amounts of dollars. The ideology gets the headlines usually but if you follow the money, you end up in Riyad, Teheran, Moscow, Washington, and Tel Aviv. Iran is making a very basic point here: we can shut down your oil any time we want.

It's a clever move since it puts everybody on the spot economically. In related news, Trump is planning to meet Rouhani. I'm guessing they have a lot to discuss.

Why can’t the Saudis likewise shut off Iran’s oil any time they want?

They already are, through US sanctions.

Exactly. Iran has nothing to lose economically by going after Saudi oil. Before the sanctions against Iran, the status quo was OPEC as a vehicle to divide up the dollars. Everybody in the region profited from that arrangement.

Now that the sanctions are in place that former arrangement no longer keeps the peace. Iran wants in on the action and if they can't have it, they'll go after the Saudi's. They've been putting their ability to do so on display with not so subtle actions.

The US has two options here: 1) go to war with Iran. 2) find a way through diplomatic channels to make this go away. It looks like Bolton (aka. option #1) is out and Rouhani is meeting with Trump to discuss option #2.

They can, but the Iranians are more willing to tolerate pain than the Saudis and so they will ultimately win in the region. Somewhere TE Lawrence is crying.

Because Iran knows how to defend itself.

And watch the share prices of Drone Defence companies soar...

"My new startup leverages AI/ML combined with blockchain technology to do real-time disabling through software hacking of drones in-flight... we also rent out office space for dynamic companies!"

From my life experience, what people in power really hate is to be made to look powerless.

And there is simple rationale to it. The power of people in power lays in hands of other powerful people serving them. And as a rule, the powerful people don't obey to ones they see as weak.

And this is more apparent in the regime states than anywhere else, when generals/ministers/big shot advisers and fixers risk far more than just their political entitlement if their patron is about to loose it out.

Wow, CNBC is really going all out to propagandize here. No mention of Saudi led war on Yemen, which would obviously motivate the Houthi's to attack Aramco (the Houthi's quoted in the article even make reference to the "aggression" of the Saudi Monarchy against Yemenis).

Instead, they jump right to Mike Pompeo (on Twitter, no less) denouncing Iran and concluding that there's "no evidence" the Houthis are responsible.... ridiculous.

I'm really expecting the 'no evidence' line to come back and bite Pompeo in the ass. I hope someone has the balls to ask him "where's the evidence Iran is behind the attacks - and real evidence this time, not fake national-secrecy bullshit".

I won't hold my breath though. I know that America is in the grips of war profiteers who will stop at nothing to get yet another heinous, evil, illegal war started for their profits.

Playing out as Naval Ravikant predicted on the After-on podcast: https://after-on.com/episodes-31-60/044

Eventually cheap drones, anonymous assassination markets, etc. will make commercial flying a thing of the past.

Written summary of podcast - https://podcastnotes.org/2019/03/20/after-on-naval-01/

Today it's basically a week-long project to train a neural network to fly towards a jet engine in a 3D simulation. Then you just need to hook that to the drone control software.

No amount of jamming helps you here, this is radio control off, GPS off, entirely visual "guided missile" approach.

And this approach scales, with 20 drones, 2 drones assigned to each engine, you can engage 5 taking off planes in a row off a busy airport. And you can pick the direction which will make the planes crash in the nearby city.

With a "hire people to do stuff for bitcoin" project (there are several) you can prepare this in a bunch of countries (you just tell them you need some drones setup for an aerial shooting/light show or something).

The future is scary.

"fly towards" doesn't scale too well with the huge speed difference. Your intercept cone is super narrow when jets travel 10x your quads speed. Then factor in altitude and this approach only works near airports, where defense is arguably easiest.

where this works really, really well is with boats. Iran did this with 15m RHIBs.

I work on these problems directly. Its scarey but mostly because we're not thinking about it, not because it's something we can't prevent. Don't get me started on all the truly horrifying things commercial drones are capable of even worse than airline terror.

Let’s not forget what’s possible 20 or 200 years ago. You can poison water supplies, you can stab people on the street, you can crate rail guns shooting out nails, you can drive giant semis into crowds of people, you can bomb or otherwise derail trains, etc etc. The ways to inflict carnage are great. But it doesn’t happen all the time, because most people aren’t seeking out murder on a repeated basis.

Yes we should find ways to defend against new kinds of attacks on common infrastructure that causes asymmetric levels of worry, but so recognize humanity has always had the potential to do damage.

The thing is: with most of what you're talking about: the level of risk taken was pretty high. With drones and other kinds of automated devices, the risk is going to drop near zero.

In other words, the real life will be as scary as the internet.

With FlightRadar24 historical data you already know exactly where regular flights will be, so you just wait there. The only thing left is that the pilot will try to dodge you, but then you have automatic drone control versus human (with low visibility).

I agree with you that this is a high touch attack, a kind of "drone 9/11", versus other low hanging fruits like dropping drones on peoples head.

Drones have 10 to 30 minute loiter time, and they don't reach 10k feet. You're overestimating the ability of small craft to detect, track, and even reach the operational area of large passenger jets. These things are moving at hundred or more meters per second vs a drones ... 15? By the time a vision system had enough pixels on target to detect, it would have seconds to move into position in front of it. And how exactly is it supposed to know the jets velocity and heading?

Let alone it must hit the inside of the engine to do more than become a scratch on the paint.

Still, takeoff and landing maybe ... But still this kind of visual detection, tracking, and maneuvering is harder than you think.

Humans aren't as regular as to allow this. The Mombasa attack failed because the pilot chose a different path that time, and that was an 'easy' attack (takeoff where the plane is slow, using military-grade AA missiles far quicker than any drone).

With this attitude, anything is a week long project. 1. You're making extremely optimistic assumptions about the results of your system. The translation between your simulation and reality may not be so smooth. Also jets are fast. 2. Lasers jam your system. 3. It's a difficult problem to crash a malfunctioning plane in a certain area when you are behind the sticks, let alone by doing it with a collision.

In the context of asymmetric warfare this might not be a significant issue. The offensive side need only be successful a fraction of the time, but the defensive side must be successful nearly all of the time.

Being successful is not binary. The offensive side needs to be significantly more successful in order to gain an upper hand. Otherwise it's defenders advantage every time.

In Clausewitzian warfare this is true but not in asymmetric warfare. As a simplistic analogy, there's no need to score a knockout punch if you can trick your opponent into falling on their face.

And yet, the odd successful terrorist attack makes word headlines.

It's almost like there aren't actually vast numbers of motivated terrorists trying to kill us.

Tbh, I think the only stable outcome is that which was during the cold war, MAD.

That or may be people can try diplomacy for once.

If you have money you can just launch 50 of them and hope 2 or 3 find their target. The marginal cost is relatively low.

So then the airport sends friendly drones to intercept the nasty drones. It's drones all the way down…

Exactly as Neal Stephenson predicted in Diamond Age.

Let's not forget brute force electronic means (disrupt drones' control circuitry) and mechanical means (obstacles, nets, dust, corrosives, artificial wind). We have many options to defend against rogue drones if motivated to do so.

Note that an airplane with a single engine out, even during the initial accent, typically does not crash into a city. The Hudson river landing occurred because all engine power was lost, not because of OEI (one engine inoperative).

Contained single-engine failure / blade failure and explosive charge inside engine are two different cases.

Modern turbofan engines are designed to contain a total blade failure. I'm not aware that they're designed to mitigate a charge detonated within compressor or turbine stages.

What's intriguing for me is that potentially unjammable machine vision drone missiles dramatically reduces the killchain. You don't need trained operators to loiter within radio range. And I think if anything it will heavily bias economics more towards attackers. It's already reducing relatively cheap hardware by removing training, operation costs and remote control hardware. Doesn't take much imagination to see how you can lock down a military airstrip with this tech or dramatically increase cost of defense. Albeit I am far from an expert in the topic.

I imagine the countermeasure will be cameras with computer vision controlling microwave lasers.

This is bit on a tangent but it’s bit amusing.

The term for that is maser. That term came before laser which was derived from it.

And now we have come the full circle and are calling masers microwave lasers instead of lasers ”maser but for visible light”

tercon — terrain contour matching does not need a camera. Earliest systems had a single radar sensor and an analogue feedback loop, and those were getting EEPs of 25 x 15m

And now we all have pocket sized supercomputers...

No, it won't make commercial aviation a thing of the past. It will make any degree of privacy a thing of the past. This kind of thing will lead to an absolute panopticon police state, and one with popular support. Every single thing you do, read, or buy will be monitored, as will all travel. There will be cameras and sensors literally everywhere, even hidden in wilderness areas. Or maybe you will be required to be implanted with one.

In the limit: "smart dust" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smartdust

I think, if we can ensure that the panopticon is self-reflexive, we may force ourselves into a kind of Golden Age (or Gilded Cage depending on one's attitude, eh?)

Mrs. Grundy as omniscient tyrant.

Drones will be a thing of the past. UK laws are already cracking down on recreational drones, once something major happens they will just completely ban them for unlicensed users.

The use of drones in this way by rebels makes me rethink the media image of a rebel. They are educated, lawyers, doctors, engineers.

The so-called "rebels" represent a large part of the Yemen population, and they ruled over their country for many month, so of course some of them are educated and have access to technical ressources.

From memory, here's what happened in Yemen:

1. The Arab revolt of 2011 led to the fall of the long time dictator, Saleh.

2. In 2012, a conference in Ryad, organized by the powerful neighbor Saudi Arabia, appointed a new president Hadi. He was supposed to rule 1 year, until a democratic vote elects a new president.

3. In 2015, a large part of the population was fed up with the lack of change, especially with Hadi extending its reign. The Houthis, a religious minority from the North of Yemen, overtook the capital. Hadi resigned.

4. Six month later, Hadi went to Saudi Arabia. He claimed he was still president. SA and United Emirates invaded Yemen. Supporters of Saleh joined with Houthis against the invading troops and Hadi's supporters.

5. Yemen has fallen into occupation and civil war. People suffer from hunger and lack of medicine. Saudi bombings destroyed hospitals, factories, historic sites… According to the Guardian, at least 40% of Saudi bombings had purely civilians targets. Houthis have requested help from Iran, so the war is regional.

A succinct and fair summary.

It should be noted, engineers being well represented in these sort of rebel/revolutionary/terrorist organizations isn't a new phenomenon. Here is an article from a decade ago: https://slate.com/technology/2009/12/why-do-so-many-terroris...

The notion of terrorists as uneducated goat farmers is more a manifestation of western biases than it is an accurate representation of the truth.

I see this in discussions about 9/11 all the time, where someone will express incredulity that it would be possible for a bunch of "goat farmers" to execute such a plan. But if you actually look at those terrorists, many were educated and from well-to-do families.

Very much the same thing with the Sri Lanka attacks.

I think the American public/media likes to paint everyone from the non-West as extremely backwards, when in reality I feel like everywhere in the non-West has "West"-like pockets of extreme affluence and then just huge amounts of inequality and rural poverty.

Well, those events are anomalies. People usually are surprised by anomalies.

The only distinctive quality I could find was that one has sovereign immunity and “non-state enemy combatants” don’t.

Its just the same 4,000 year old story of nomads wandering the middle east wishing they had a nation, “as it was foretold”.

The specific thing people fail to realize is how much oil money was feeding into terrorist groups. If you understand that, you are no longer surprised that they attracted talented (albeit thoroughly evil) people.

Yemenis defending their country are terrorists?

Of course not, but since Saudi Arabia is the ally of the USA, in the eyes of many the enemy of Saudi Arabia must be a bunch of terrorists instead of liberation fighters who want to get rid of a president that was appointed by Saudi Arabia.

None of the 9/11 terrorists were Yemeni, but if they had been then yes they're a terrorist. Hijacking a plane to kill 1000s of civilians is clearly terrorism.

Without commenting on your larger point, it's doubtful that Yemeni engineers are building these drones.

Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world and presumably their engineering capital is presumably not huge. The Houthis are backed by Iran. Iran (which has far more engineering capital and was accidentally gifted a US military drone several years ago) has military drones.

It sounds far more plausible to me that Iranian support is how the Houthis obtained these drones.

It might not require large technical capabilities as those can be bought commercially. It may not be that hard to fit the "brains" of a commercial drone to a beefier body and communications. Hobbyist stuff really.


No, I don't. I think the difference between a terrorist, rebel and revolutionary tends to be a matter of perspective. I was trying to keep my personal thoughts out of it, hence I generalized my comment to "rebel/revolutionary/terrorist". However, since you asked, my personal stance in this particular case is that the Yemeni are plainly in the right.

Your skeptical reaction was understandable (there's been a lot of crappy new accounts on HN in the last year or two) but seems misplaced in this case. Get in touch with me if you have time.

The term “rebel” is usually used to designate someone who isn’t on our side. There’s lots of smart people who aren’t on our side.

American southerners endearingly refer to the Confederate States Army as the “rebels.”

Star Wars makes a good fictional counterpoint as well.

Perhaps also worth mentioning, some of the Russian Separatist forces in Donbass have adopted a flag that looks strikingly similar to CSA flag. It could be that they did this because they see themselves as rebels and therefore a famous rebel flag was fitting for them. When asked about it, they claim the similarity is coincidental.


Yemen is a really poor country, they don't have this capability. This is a proxy war, we had a lot of them in the past 100 years.

Do they really not have this capability? You can buy a decent drone off the shelf for a thousand bucks, how hard is it to strap an IED on the back?

With a range over 1000km?

How do they know how far the drone flew? Could be just Lawrence of Arabia on a camel crossing the desert and launching from outside the compound wall for all anyone knows.

Could be just that, but it doesn’t seem that’s what happened https://twitter.com/tobiaschneider/status/117291970014739660...

The drone doesn't need 1000km rage, you just need a pickup and a few people to get somewhat close.

The attack was, per their claim, carried out with assistance from inside Saudi Arabia.

The required range is vastly smaller than 1000km.

The Houthis are genuinely fighting for their own country. Iran may help them but Iran is not commanding them, so I do not see this as a proxy war but an internal affair to Yemen.

The Afghan Mujahedeen were genuinely fighting for their own country, and yet the war they fought in was absolutely a US-USSR proxy war.

> Yemen is a really poor country, they don't have this capability.

The Houthis capabilities for anything short of deploying regular military forces is essentially ide identical to Iran’s since they.are actively supported by Iran including deployment of the Iranian Republican Guard to aid, train, advise, and support them.

Saying the Houthis are too poor for this kind of drone attack is like saying the Mujahideen in Afghanistan were too poor to have had shoulder-launched SAMs.

Also, arguing whether it was the Houthis or Iran based on capabilities that Iran could have easily supplied to the Houthis is kind of silly given the nature of the conflict.

My thought exactly. This is too expensive an attack. But for Iran it makes sense (or at least follows the pattern of their recent behavior) and they also have the capability.

Absolutely absurd claim. It's not expensive at all. Iran may or may not be providing technological assistance, but US amateur enthusiasts and mom and pop chinese resellers definitely are. No Iranian conspiracy here or needed. Drones are not magic genies unavailable to all but the elite. Drones, including these fixed wing models, are kid tech these days, including drones with 1000 mile ranges that can carry bombs that can destroy a facility.

BS. Even if you magically had a 1000 mile drone (extremely unlikely even for US 'amateurs', much less wartorn Yemen), it can't do anything without guidance, which they can't provide. Everybody, but Everybody, knows Iran is responsible for this.

Guidance is easy. Throw on Ardupilot with a preprogrammed mission onto an EPP wing. 100km of range with 2kg payload is possible for under $1000.

So you say can get a small range with a tiny bomb (nowhere near enough to cause this damage), and also without any real guidance (Preprogrammed mission isn't real guidance. Deviations are very likely to kill the mission). All this while (presumably) not living in a wartorn county.

Now guess how hard it must be for the Houthis. Either Iran did it directly or had so much involvement it's practically the same.

Ardupilot (and a number of other open source flight stacks) do 'real' guidance. GNSS based, or optical flow, or whatever other source you want. You can program drones (multirotor, fixed wing, vtol, whatever) to go to exact coordinates, following whatever flight paths you want. This is something a teenager can put together in a weekend with parts ordered from banggood or gearbest or any other number of chinese webstores.

For a 1000km range, sure, maybe they didn't do it themselves, but nothing stopping them from just ordering slightly larger off-the-shelf drones from China. But lots of small drones is cheap and easy, and harder to stop.

Source: I work in the commercial drone industry.

Edit: here's an off-the-shelf drone with 1000km range, costs $4.5k: https://www.muginuav.com/product/mugin-4450mm-uav-ht-tail-pl...

That's a really cool and super inexpensive long range drone! Thanks.

The Houthi models are jet powered, cruise at 450mph, and can fly for 2 hrs on 500 lbs of jet fuel, which requires a 10 cubic foot volume fuel tank. The interior of the fuselage has around 70 cubic feet of capacity, which is more than enough for the fuel (even enough for a 900 mile each way round trip if desired), the controls, and the payload. They have a solid fuel rocket booster on the back as they are sled launched. Once up to flight speed the jet takes over and the rocket element drops off. They are really cool drones and within the scope of what the serious amateur community in the US and elsewhere is experimenting with. Some guys even are building their own jet engines from scratch.

The guidance systems are a done deal. Can DIY or can buy off the shelf. My kids build drones and program the guidance systems on them themselves (one started at age 8). It's fun and there's even online classes telling you everything you need to know. Ours currently use inertial guidance and GPS and have no problem getting somewhere with great accuracy. We've also got a celestial navigation system under development which works even when there is no GPS.

Houthis mentioned they have local assist at the end of the flight which makes sense to deal with GPS jamming. The region they hit contains significant Shia populations who hate Saudi Arabia and have even revolted against the Kingdom in the past. Once you're at the last mile if for any reason there's a question about the target, local observers can and do provide guidance assist.

People saying Houthis are too dumb or primitive to make drones are warmongering anti-Iranians, IMHO. Houthis have systematically and incrementally been developing this technology for years now to defend their homeland and have shown off their drones. There's no question the Houthi drones have the capabilities we are seeing.

Evidence: Provide some, or quit it with your BS war-mongering against Iran.

Gee I don't know. Maybe the Saudis bombed themselves. What better way to deal with oil-addiction then to blow up your own infrastructure? Or maybe its their arch-enemy which has the motive, opportunity, ability and past history of doing those things. Too reasonable, I guess.

I am not "war-mongering" - the only warmongers here are the people who blow up stuff.

While I don't disagree, I was curious how sophisticated these are compared to, say, those American freedom dispensers. The embedded video is kind of interesting, the one showcased there towards the end looks like a slightly oversized model airplane painted in military gray.

Does anyone have more info on the specific kind(s) of drone used in the attack?

"Houthi rebels have been using drones in combat since the start of the Saudi-led war. The first appeared to be off-the-shelf, hobby-kit-style drones, but later versions have been nearly identical to Iranian models. Tehran denies supplying the rebels with weapons, but the west and Gulf Arab nations say it does." https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/sep/14/major-saudi-ar...

Also if the drones were launched from Yemen then they've probably flown ≥700km, so I'd be surprised if they're commercial octocopters.

> UN investigators have suggested that the rebels’ new UAV-X drone may have a range of up to 930 miles (1,500km)



I tried quickly to find a source that confirms this since you didn't provide one but I cant find anything. Where did you get "It's Russian / Iranian technology deployed by Russian / Iranian mercenaries" from?

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/14/world/middleeast/saudi-ar... for the tech claim.

The "mercenaries" claim is wrong (at least in Yemen) though.

So that link writes:

"Iran has supplied drone technology to the Houthis fighting the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, a panel of experts reported in January 2018 to the United Nations Security Council.

United Nations investigators say the Houthis have since obtained a more advanced drone than those cited in that report, with a range of 930 miles, The Associated Press reported."

So it's not clear if the source of the recent, more advanced drones is the same as the previous ones that the UNSC reported.

Or am I missing something else from the article?

Successfully discharging a weapon that was given to you by someone else doesn't make you an engineer.

Iran funds this. The advanced rockets by Hamas, the drones by the Houthi. Proxy war like usual. They are using Yemen for themselves uncaring of lives, we are killing so many innocent in Yemen. Life’s complicated but after the Iran deal, funding these groups by Iran increased significantly, and so did our subsequent killing of innocents.

It is the Saudi's that are killing innocents in Yemen. Saudi Arabia started the war in Yemen simply because they wanted to impose a hated dictator on Yemen. If the Saudis let the Yemeni choose their own leader, or even imposed a dictator that is not as hated, or had the basic decency to force dictator on Yemen that is the same religion as most Yemenis this would not have happened.

The Saudis are blockading Yemen, a nation that needs to import most of its food to survive. They are directly and intentionally causing a humanitarian catastrophe there. There is not need to blame Iran for this.

The Yemeni rebels are cornered and as any cornered people they will take any help they can, including Iran. But this is not the cause of this. The cause is the Saudi led war and blockade.

Life is indeed complicated. What fueled Iran's involvement in Yemen was Saudia Arabia invading it. They worked very hard to keep the Houthis at arms length prior to that because as different religious sects go the only thing they really have in common is that the really nasty fundamentalist women-hating Sunni sects (ie the Saudis) hate them both for being different.

And what kick started the war in Yemen? That would be a daddy's boy prince wanting to prove he could win his own war without daddy's help (that went well).

None of which would happen if we didn't really enjoy selling guns to the Saudis, on account of all the money they've taken from us when they sold us oil.

And we'd still be happily selling arms to the Iranian King we installed if they hadn't got sick of it and thrown us out.

So this is on us. All of it.

Mostly agree, definitely agree that Iran meddling was 100% our fault.

I stated already in a previous comment: the Houthis are fighting for their own country. The Houthis may be helped by Iran but Iran is not commanding them. Since the Houthis fight for a Yemen without the appointed president, they fight for their own country. Saudi Arabia choose to have a war with the Houthis (not with Iran!) so this is not a proxy war at all.

Iran! Of course let's mainly blame Iran, not KSA or the Western powers enabling them, this is an in depth analysis indeed.

Evidence. Got some?

Al Jazeera

>The attacks come as Saudi Arabia, the world's leading crude exporter, steps up preparations for a much-anticipated initial public offering of Aramco.

I wonder if this was timed by the rebels, or if there were outside influencers who had a vested interest in this.

The rebels said that they had help from allies inside Saudi Arabia, maybe it was people who wanted to do economic damage, kind of like an over-the-top version of a news article designed to hurt stock prices.

The two are not exclusive.

John Bolton is fired and oil drops 2% as hopes for war and restricted oil supply fade for the worlds exporters. A week later we get drone strikes against Saudi Arabia by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. It’s like Jeff Goldblum once said, ‘Nature finds a way’.

Unfortunately, there is no technical information yet about the type of drones that carried the strikes. Could it be the shahed 129 ?

No, it was actually the CX-6057 Flying Egg https://www.amazon.com/WayIn®-CX-6057-Flying-2-4GHz-Control/...

Commercially available drones are easily detectable ("a week project", as said before) and very fragile. I believe automatic anti-drone systems are now months from being deployed worldwide. It is not even necessary to be very powerful: something like airsoft gun gonna be enough.

I don't think it's that easy..

There's numbers.. Systems using missiles can be zerged with disposable decoy drones until they have no ammo or tricked if using thermal tracking. Gun based ones can have a hard time tracking/predicting if the drones randomize movement around their attack vector and/or randomize speed.

The environment and the approach will matter as well. They come in low, tracing the terrain or snaking through it, will make keeping lock hard. What if it's rush hours and they come in just above car height along a crowded street.

Then, of course, you can just have them semi-adapt. If they see a bunch of explosions in the air around them maybe switch to pre-programmed mission #2?

Defending against drone swarms is going to be tricky. Here they only had a few low tech ones and had a significant impact. I wonder how one would go about designing a system that should go for a target but be in no rush to get there though..

Though of course at that point you might as well just use artillery.

For multirotor, sure. Fixed wing is more robust though.

Environmentalists say they might shut down Heathrow airport with drones because they dont like new construction. They would announce an hour in advance such a demonstration.

Authorities warn of severe prison sentences if they catch some doing this.

Already done, 19 arrested, and it's a climate change protest: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-49696973

That's a little different- they just want to fly drones around, not blow things up.

Trump may be secretly transferring unspecified nuclear technology to Saudis. (Jared goes there often) There is a meeting about this next week. The cover story for this is that Saudi would like to diversify their energy production. Some people fear this includes weapons technology.


One of the side effects of Russia's maintaining of the official decorum of non-involvement ("little green men" of unknown origin in Crimea, and the whole tank battalions taking their tanks on voluntary vacation to Donbass :) in similar situation in Ukraine was avoiding opening themselves to the risk of otherwise legitimate counter-strike by Ukraine and scaling up of the war. Saudis seems to have forgo such risk in favor of full military power they can apply in the open war. Nothing helps a regime popularity better than a quick victorious war ... until counter strikes hit deep home where it really hurts, like the Saudi oil fields in this case. Reminds about the Berlin bombing that USSR did several months after the start of the war in 1941 - the almost unstoppable, at the moment, German forces were already deep in the USSR territory with the Moscow and the glorious relatively quick and easy victory pretty much already in sight, the Germans had full air superiority, and reaching Berlin from the yet unoccupied USSR territories was on the edge of USSR bombers capabilities. 11 bombers took part in the raid. The actual damage to Berlin, if any, was minimal, yet the psychological impact was huge on the both sides. ( US have the similar story of bombing of Tokyo in 1942 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doolittle_Raid)

The Houthi are Iran's "Little Green Men," in the same way as you say the Donbasses in Eastern Ukraine were Russia's. Heck, Iran and Russia are allies, and each other's "little green men" in this conflict, where the objective is to boost your economy by wrecking your competitor's ability to produce or ship to market.

Didn't anyone look at the map? The drone strikes have nothing to do with the Houthis, they don't have the range. This is a purely Iranian operation with obvious motives - control oil supply from ME. This adventurism is going to lead into a huge war which will be bad for anyone in the region. Perhaps that can't be stopped now.

From a WaPo story:

"U.N. investigators said the Houthis' new UAV-X drone, found in recent months during the Saudi-led coalition's war in Yemen, likely has a range of up to 1,500 kilometers (930 miles). That puts the far reaches of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE in range."


Well, if one believes their 'taking of responsibility', of course you believe they have the flight range, which means you assigned 'their' drones a flight range, which is then picked up to 'explain' it.

If you apply a more realistic standard (no actual evidence including footage, no way to guide it, no facilities in Yemen to even test it), it's obvious this is an operation by a state, and only Iran can fit the bill.

The Houthi rebels and Iran are intimately connected; if Iran has the capability, that lends support to the idea that the Houthis could have carried out the attack, since the Houthis are extensively equipped, trained, funded, and otherwise supported by Iran.

So we go back to Iran either way. Except it's much easier for Iran to launch the attack from other parts of the world, and let the Houthis claim responsibility.

Note that it isn't even clear Iran has this range, the foiled attack on Israel suggested they don't, otherwise they'd have launched from further away.

> Note that it isn't even clear Iran has this range

The Houthi claim is that it was done with assistance from sympathizers in Saudi Arabia. That vastly reduces the required range, no matter whether it was the Houthis, Iran, or the Easter Bunny directing the attack.

Yes, I do think the actual range was far smaller. But smuggling drones, fuel and bombs across the desert is a massive operation too, probably beyond the Houthis either. IMHO, it's a direct Iranian operation from Iraq.

The UN investigator's range estimate is from May. https://www.apnews.com/18f9c169f398464ba53c19e3963d3fba

The UN 'investigator' never examined a model, but simply repeated news reports about the previous time the Houthis claimed an attack. That's exactly what I said:

* (A) believes the Houthi claims. * Ergo argues they have drone X. * People repeat they have drone X based on (A), despite the only actual source being the Houthis themselves.

"The drone, with a wingspan of 4.5 meters (14.7 feet), has a V-shaped tail fin. It’s powered by a rear-mounted engine and has been found with what appears to be extra fuel tanks welded it to, a U.N. panel of experts found. It carries a 18-kilogram (40-pound) warhead."

Yea, I read that. But where does the basis for those comes from? Other unverified claims by the Houthis themselves?

They are in power merely 4 years, no evidence of any tests in Yemen (so they developed this without testing at all?), all this time being involved in a war, barely any imports etc.

Sorry, but arguing they have these capabilities requires just a bit more proof.

> The Houthi spokesman, Yahya Sarea, told al-Masirah TV, which is owned by the Houthi movement and is based in Beirut, that further attacks could be expected in the future.

> He said Saturday's attack was one of the biggest operations the Houthi forces had undertaken inside Saudi Arabia and was carried out in "co-operation with the honourable people inside the kingdom".


Of course they'd take responsibility. That's awfully convenient. But it's not their doing.

Does it really matter if it was done by the (Iranian proxy) Houthi rebels with assistance from sympathizers in SA, by Iran with assistance from sympathizers in SA, or by Iran from Iran?

Well, half the thread here is about the Houthis allegedly defending themselves vs SA. If this is instead a direct Iranian attack on a different state, the story changes.

Once we understand better what happened, we'll know if and how to act in response.

> Well, half the thread here is about the Houthis allegedly defending themselves vs SA. If this is instead a direct Iranian attack on a different state, the story changes.

Not really; everyone who is paying any attention know that the civil war in Yemen is an Iran vs SA proxy war, and that the Houthi claim of responsibility is equivalent to notice of escalation of that war (with the implication that SA deescalating in Yemen is key to undoing the escalation.)

Whether the Houthis are actually operationally involved in the attack is immaterial to its significance.

My point is that the attack has little to do with Yemen, but has everything to do with Iranian designs. So talking about 'escalation in Yemen war' is meaningless (also, if Iran is the one escalating, maybe they're the ones that should undo it?).

If it portends civil war in SA, that'd be significant

What concerns me (but doesn't surprise me) is seeing the news about how Wall Street will handle this, and the immediate assumption that oil prices will spike rapidly when trading begins on Monday.

Do the big CL option MMs keep positions open over the weekend?

Drone are similiar to the Toyota Hilux is akin to the BMP.

The Toyota Jihad model does appear to be a popular truck in certain quarters.

I've been surprised for years that infrastructure wasn't more effectively attacked. It seems to me that a ton of mayhem could erupt just from a guy with a Barrett 50 cal.

The problem there is that that's a well understood threat model, mitigated with (unqualified) manpower. Responding to drones requires a more technical solution which might not be realistic to deploy en masse.

It's just one more case where there is a mismatch between offense and defense realities.

I'd much rather try to design an anti-carrier missile than design a carrier that was missile proof.

Defense Digital Services has a project working on defense of this kind of stuff

If you're into that sort of thing, you should go check them out as they're hiring a lot of folks

Fill up your gas tanks.

These are some kind of terrorists i can get behind

Make no mistake: these aren't rebel, this is Iran, trying to force the world to buy oil from her by terrorizing the competition.

Has there, will there ever be peace in the middle east?

feels wrong to say middle east... arab world... don't want to box them in by religion either.

Just to educate, “Arab” isn’t a religion, it is an ethnic group. A majority of Arabs are Muslims, which is the religious designation.

The Middle East is no more warlike than the west. Remember is only been a couple generations since World War 2, and sectarian violence has been around within the last two decades in the west.

You don’t refute “the Middle East is a violent place” with “there has been violence in the west in the last 20 years”. Violence is a spectrum, not a binary, and there is a chasm between the Middle East and the West with respect to how violent each place is.

We can find non-racist explanations for the violence disparity without forsaking reason.

hasn't the region been consistently violent compared to the rest of the world for the last 2,000 years?

I'm not a historian, but I doubt it. My understanding is that the middle east was quite a lot more civilized (for some conventional definition of the term, anyway) than most/all of Europe throughout most of the middle ages. I'm of the impression that the middle east only became appreciably more violent in the last century (oil-related conflicts in the middle east amid rising quality of life all over the world). I'm only speculating though; I'd be interested to hear from someone more knowledgable on the subject.

"Arab World" is perfectly acceptable. It's understood to mean the 22 Arabic-speaking states from the Maghreb, the Horn of Africa and the Middle East.[1] See also the Arab League which represents the Arab World.

[1] http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/arab-countries/

ah, yeah. duh. sorry, haven't contemplated the region much lately.

So I guess that 5% someone will need to buy from the US? Sounds to me like someone is making things great again...

No, the 2020 slogan appears to be "keeping" things great.

Haha, yes, Trump and the Houthi rebels are real tight, the huge arms sales to KSA are just a diversion.

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