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 it 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, offering a very small window for detection and counter-action. While 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, something that would take a substantial amount of time providing a window for a sustaining the missile offensive. The ability to respond is also dependent on how much resources are deployed to the region in time to counter-act 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.
Late last Friday 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 has been under negotiation for several years is worth $3.5 billion dollars, and represents the first foreign sale of the advanced missile defense system. It is no coincidence that the deal was completed less than a day after the US announced a $30 billion arms sale of 84 F-15's and upgrade kits to Saudi Arabia. Both sales comes 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 made clear last week that it believes it has the capability to blockade the Straight of Hormuz setting off alarm bells in Washington and throughout the region. 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. While much attention has been given to the risks posed to an Iranian effort to blockade the strait or interdict tankers, the subject of the ballistic missile threat to energy infrastructure in the Gulf is often overlooked.
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 or close to 70% 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 offline even for a short period of time would greatly impact global energy supply and prices. Putting them offline for a sustained period of time could potentially be catastrophic. The pickings are just as easy if not quite as lucrative elsewhere in the Gulf. The UAE relies primarily on two major refineries the Jebel Ali Refinery, and the Al-Ruwais refinery which have a combined capacity of 400,000 bbl/d, while Kuwait has its Mini al-Ahmadi refinery with 470,000 bbl/d, and so on. All of these facilities are relatively unhardened and are all located along the Persian Gulf putting them in easy range of Iranian missiles.
In addition to these primary targets 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 in range of the Shahab-3's estimated range, and certainly within the ranges of more advanced models, and are at the moment relatively bare of anti-missile batteries. While it may not be an immediate priority, the possibility that Iran would follow up a successful missile offensive in the Gulf, with a secondary offensive aimed at crippling alternative export infrastructure cannot be ignored.
The commitment to provide the UAE with the THAAD batteries represents a growing understanding both on the part of the United States and of Gulf states of the risk posed by ballistic missiles to energy security. While these deals have just been completed they will likely prove to be only the beginning as we enter the new year. It seems likely that the Saudi Naval Expansion Program-II which has been under discussion for several years will be accelerated to completion. The $23 billion deal would provide Saudi Arabia with as many as 10 Aegis equipped ships, substantially enhancing their ballistic missile defense (BMD) capability. With tensions continuing to rise, the Kingdom will probably decide it wants to enhance this capability sooner rather than later., especially in light of the spate of major arms purchases. As countries in the Gulf continue to develop their BMD capabilities and look towards countering the Iranian missile threat, it may prove advantageous to create a regional BMD grid. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) already has a security apparatus in place and may be an effective conduit for creating a regional defensive umbrella.
In any event, the Iranian missile threat and the effort to create defensive counter-measures will form an increasingly high profile part of the energy security discussion in the Gulf.
The Institute of Gulf Affairs will be releasing a special brief on Gulf Energy Security this Spring. Joshua Jacobs is a Gulf Policy Analyst with IGA.