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Abqaiq has the largest oil processing plant in the world
When a mixed formation of cruise missiles and small drone aircraft rained explosive charges at Saudi Arabia's state group Aramco's facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais on September 14, they halved national oil production by cutting 5.7 million barrels. of oil per day of the company's production.
But they did more than economic damage. This attack has had a huge impact on how nations think of protecting their airspace.
Companies are now developing and deploying sophisticated new defenses, from frying electronic circuits with powerful microwave radiation beams to precise interference systems.
While the United States and Saudi Arabia blamed Iran for Abqaiq's attack, it is still unclear who was behind it.
But it would be a mistake to confuse the use of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in this attack with other incidents in which ready-to-use drones disrupted airports, football matches or political rallies, says Douglas Barrie, an airline colleague. at the think tank of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
He says this attack was carried out in part by sophisticated UAVs – small, wingless and unmanned aircraft – such as quadcopter drones flown in suburban parks.
Instead, they can travel hundreds of kilometers and be pre-programmed to fly around ground navigation points, allowing them to approach a target in an unexpected direction.
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"The level of complexity of this attack is above all that we have seen before. The use of a mix of cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that arrived at the same time requires a serious level of planning and proficiency," says the Mr. Barrie.
The attack raised a question mark about the quality of protection available against UAV attacks.
Critics of Saudi Arabia's air defenses are far from the target, says Barrie. The fact is that complex networks of guided missile-linked air defense radar and advanced fighter squadrons are not designed to combat this relatively cheap and disposable technology.
"Digital technology has made a huge difference in what smaller UAVs can do. Suddenly you can put a lot into a UAV, it can almost turn it into a precision guided weapon."
By programming a UAV to fly around several points before it reaches its target, you can avoid the obvious directions from which an attack is expected. This may explain why existing radar failed to detect the formation of drones that attacked Abqaiq.
And it may be that custom-made defenses to counter this new UAV threat have been rushed to Saudi Arabia.
Phaser uses microwaves to knock out targets
The US Air Force has just received Phaser, a microwave weapon from defense giant Raytheon. Shooting from a disk similar to a giant satellite dish on top of a sand-colored container, it erases the digital elements inside a drone.
Raytheon cannot say where it was sent to Phaser, which was bought quickly, but the Pentagon said it was being deployed abroad.
Perhaps Phaser's greatest strength is the speed of light. This is the rate at which it fires bursts of microwave radiation. And that can bring down a UAV in a split second.
The beam emitted by Phaser is 100 meters wide at a distance of one kilometer. This translates into a lot of dangerous space for an attack UAV. Targets are tracked by an electro-optical sensor, converting images into electronic signals and working in conjunction with the microwave beam.
Although the system can be fully automated, it currently requires final approval from a human operator who confirms the target through the optical sensor. By knocking down the target without an explosion, Phaser avoids the type of debris and fragmentation that is not welcome in populated areas or sensitive facilities.
Another benefit of this microwave gun is that it can handle continuous waves of targets without reloading. Therefore, the $ 16 million price to supply and support Phaser is relatively low compared to comparable systems.
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Don Sullivan, Raytheon's chief energy-directed weapons technologist, has been working in this field for 40 years, and Phaser is the culmination of his life's work.
This is "potentially the most economical way to combat drones," according to Sullivan.
And the microwave beam is emitted in rapid pulses, which means it is safe for nearby humans.
"I stayed in the high-power microwave beam. It's not a radius of heat, it fires in very short pulses and is safe for people." he says.
Paul Burt served in Basra, Iraq in 2007
Paul Burt knows a lot about air defense and his experience is personal. As a RAF officer based in Basra Airport in 2007, he was helping the British military and Iraqi civil air traffic control authorities keep the runway open, although hundreds of rockets were fired by insurgents there.
His answer was to attach a radar system to a US-built Phalanx pistol, an automatic cannon that fires projectiles at prodigious speed, creating a lead wall in the path of missiles that are destroyed by collisions with these bombs. Of the 860 rockets launched at the airport in six months, only one hit the runway, says Burt.
Today he works for the Anglo-Italian defense group Leonardo, which sells a counter-drone system based on his experiences in Iraq.
"You can't defend every inch of airspace; you need to think about what you can realistically protect," he says.
So instead of trying to build a defensive dome around a large area, Leonardo developed what he calls an electronic sniper rifle. This jams the digital components of any drone, although Leonardo does not say exactly how it is done.
Leonardo Falcon Shield Anti-UAV Defense System
Burt points out that this system, Falcon Shield, starts with a threat assessment program on a laptop that decides where to point in order to give the best chance of stopping drone attacks.
For an oil facility that spans hundreds of square kilometers, this software tool must be able to create overlapping defensive arcs.
Leonardo recently announced a joint research and development program with the RAF. Your goal is to study how to detect, identify and defeat drones while evaluating how drones will develop.
The drone threat is evolving at a dramatic pace; the economic damage inflicted on Aramco opened a new front in the war – and no one wants to be left behind.