The Iranian missile threat

In Map of Strait of Hormuz with maritime politica...early January the US announced an agreement to supply the UAE with two Terminal High Altitude Defense 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 defense 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 defense 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 defense 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.

Finally only a small number of facilities would have to be hit to cause substantial damage and disruption to global energy supply. In Saudi Arabia the oil and natural gas processing complex of Abqaiq handles more than 5 million bbl/day, close to 70 percent of Saudi daily output, making it one of the most important energy nodes in the world. Close by is Ras Tanura the largest refinery in the Kingdom which handles 550,000 bbl/d. Targeting just these two facilities, and putting either of them off-line even for a short period of time would greatly impact global energy supply and prices. Putting them off-line for a sustained period of time could be potentially catastrophic.

The pickings are just as easy if not quite as lucrative elsewhere in the neighborhood. The UAE relies primarily on two major refineries: the Jebel Ali, and the Al-Ruwais which have a combined capacity of 400,000 bbl/d. North along the Persian Gulf, Kuwait has its Mini al-Ahmadi refinery with 470,000 bbl/d. These facilities, and more, are relatively unhardened and within easy range of Iranian missiles.

In addition it is possible that Iran could choose to strike not only at primary production and processing facilities on the Gulf, but expand its operations to include alternative export facilities. Saudi Arabia has two major refineries on the Red Sea coast at Yanbu with a third under construction. These refineries and the corresponding East-West pipeline that pumps crude to them figure prominently as the Saudi Arabian trump card in the event of a Gulf crisis. Allowing them to potentially bypass a blockaded strait, or extreme disruption, they would pump to these refineries to continue exporting, albeit at a significantly reduced rate.

However, all of these facilities lie under the shadow of the Shahab-3′s estimated range, and certainly within the ranges of more advanced models. Worryingly, they are also relatively bare of anti-missile batteries.

It may not be an immediate priority, but the possibility that Iran would follow up a successful missile offensive in the Gulf, with a secondary offensive aimed at crippling alternative export infrastructure is a threat that cannot be ignored.

Despite the palpable danger posed by these missiles, far too much attention has been lavished on other concerns such as the Strait of Hormuz. The commitment to provide the UAE with the THAAD batteries should redirect some much needed attention on this issue. Indeed while these deals have just been completed they will likely prove to be only the beginning.

It seems likely that the Saudi Naval Expansion Program-II which has been under discussion for several years will be accelerated to completion this year. The $23 billion deal would provide Saudi Arabia with as many as 10 Aegis equipped ships, substantially enhancing their ballistic missile defense (BMD) capability.

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. The current crisis demonstrates how quickly these issues can arise. What it ought to also demonstrate is how urgently they need to become a part of our discourse; sooner rather than later.

Joshua Jacobs is a Gulf Policy Analyst with the Institute for Gulf Affairs as published at The Commentator

Posted on January 25, 2012

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