What the Saudi Oilfield Strike Says about Modern Deterrence and Homeland Defense

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

A little over a week ago, two of Saudi Arabia’s major oil facilities, Aramco’s Abqaiq and Khurais, were hit by a series of strikes. A Houthi rebel group in Yemen (aligned with Iran) claimed responsibility for the attack. Although Iran continues to loudly deny accusations of its complicity from the United States and Saudi Arabia (and, most recently, the United Kingdom), the strikes do appear to have significant, direct Iranian involvement.

That’s because the attack likely employed sophisticated low-flying cruise missiles to hit seventeen total targets at the oil facilities—sending world oil prices spiking upward for their biggest jump in thirty years, and greatly damaging the oil-dependent Saudi economy in the process. While the attack’s specifics have yet to be sorted out, it puts a smoke-cloud-shaped exclamation point on changes that have progressively chipped away at the utility of traditional paradigms of deterrence and homeland defense.

Because while this attack was on a Saudi Arabian oil facility half a world away from the United States, its contours apply directly to American national security. It was a strike on relatively undefended critical national infrastructure (on a target that had been anticipated for well over a decade). Defensive assets did not (or could not) spot the inbound drones or low-flying cruise missiles. (Besides, the attack seems to have come from the north or east, and most Saudi weapons systems are likely pointed south toward the ongoing war in Yemen.) And importantly, the nature of this attack has proven just murky enough to forestall full and unquestioned attribution.

A strike on a soft target in the homeland critical to national infrastructure; military assets out of place to provide an effective defense; and specific attribution not immediately available. Those features should stir some profound questions about homeland defense as well as the classical models of deterrence US planners have relied on for decades as the foundation of American national security.

Classical deterrence—discouragement through fear (of pain or failure)—has changed rapidly since the turn of the twenty-first century. And because we deter in order to defend, when deterrence changes, so must defense (particularly homeland defense).

But first, let’s step back and retrace the steps that got us here.

For a time after the Second World War, the relatively stable bipolarity of the Cold War meant there were two steady pillars to what might be called the “long spear” theory of national defense, which sought to maintain maximum standoff distance from all threats. The first pillar was the massive retaliation of nuclear deterrence. For the second, conventional pillar, defense planners signed on to Harold Rood’s argument that it was “preferable to defend the U.S. by fighting” overseas, “as close to the enemy’s homeland as possible.” Former president George W. Bush put this conventional strategy succinctly with respect to Afghanistan in 2007: “We will fight them over there so we do not have to face them in the United States of America.”

The “long spear” worked in the Cold War context, and even more so after the Soviet Union fell. For a time, with the Cold War pressure off, American defense strategy seemed like playing hockey against a team without sticks and where the puck never left the opponent’s end. Absent much of a threat, America got used to pulling its goalie in favor of another forward attacker, with little consideration for consequences.

Then an enemy picked up a stick—and September 11, 2001 shattered the “long spear” paradigm (as much as December 7, 1941 had generations before), so much so that by 2018, the US National Defense Strategy included the headline that “the homeland is no longer a sanctuary” (italics from original source).

But why? Why don’t oceans, borders, and great distances stop threats the way they used to?

First, devastating weaponry has become so cheap that North Korea, with roughly the same economic activity as the Colorado Springs region (around $30 billion), possesses the ability to threaten American cities with strategic strikes. In part, this cheapness has enabled the spread of immense destructive power. Not only do several more potentially hostile countries possess nuclear weapons today (in what’s been called the “second nuclear age”), more than thirty countries possess ballistic missile capability. And with Pandora’s deadly box open, tomorrow there will surely be more.

Even more worrisome is the exponential growth in cyber-weapons, which seem immune to classic deterrence, as they transcend geography and can cause equal chaos in the next cubicle or on the next continent. Also, economically and strategically, the critical infrastructure that underpins the Information Age comes with built-in vulnerabilities owing to its relatively exposed locations up in space and under the sea. There are simply more targets than ever before, with hundreds of ways to harm another homeland.

Not to mention, of course, the emergence of China as a world power has also unsteadied the balance of international relations.

For many of these reasons, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has set its famous “Doomsday Clock” at two minutes to midnight, the “closest it has ever been to apocalypse,” because the group sees today’s threats as a frightening “new abnormal.”

These damaging assaults on classical deterrence have led strategist Andrew Krepinevich to assess in Foreign Affairs that the “greatest strategic challenge” of our time is the “decline of deterrence.”

This should particularly trouble those charged with safeguarding the American homeland—which is to say all American defense professionals, as protecting the homeland is the top priority of the 2017 US National Security Strategy. Because deterrence as a strategy is inextricably interconnected to defense as an objective, these changes in defense necessarily will drive changes in deterrence.

That means it’s time for American defense planners to rethink some fundamentals. So what are some takeaways from the key features of the Saudi oilfield strike planners might consider as they approach these changes in deterrence, defense, and homeland defense? More generally, how do we adjust pre–September 11 thinking to modern threats?

The first hurdle is the way we traditionally conceptualize deterrence. Krepinevich has pointed out that when it comes to deterrence, American analysts often focus “primarily on nuclear weapons,” while Chinese and Russian strategists take a more “comprehensive view.” That must change. What good is nuclear deterrence against a limited, cruise-missile strike on undefended oil fields?

Today’s technology has changed so much that this isn’t the game of nuke-for-nuke, symmetrical brinksmanship our parents and grandparents played with the Soviets. It’s more nuanced and non-nuclear. If one of the oldest adages is “the punishment should fit the crime,” it’s clear that America would quickly lose both foreign and domestic support if it were to threaten nuclear punishment for every Russian cyberattack in Europe, Chinese-constructed sandbar in the Pacific, and Iranian medium-range missile employed in the Middle East.

America’s adversaries know precisely where the nuclear red line is—it’s time to get ahead of their thinking. Today’s threats are wider and so should be America’s thinking about deterrence.

With respect to defense, instead of a “long spear” against individual, separate targets, American defense planners should fashion an intercontinental, integrated defense in depth, with layers and redundancies to confound and confront competitors at multiple levels. Just as the sudden emergence of powerful, mobile artillery in the late fifteenth century brought on new systems of fortification, this new wave of advanced threats should propel defense planners to reimagine a truly global interlocking scheme of national defense. This applies especially to the final layer of defense—the homeland. While we haven’t in decades, now is time to think hard about putting the right goalie on the ice (and how that goalie best fits in with the rest of the team).

This should alter thinking vertically by further incorporating homeland defense into all forward-positioned military planning. Doing so matters for two reasons (and is mutually beneficial to both forward forces and homeland defenders). First, it’s very likely that the best lessons about potential Russian attacks on the American homeland can be learned in places like Ukraine—and even Salisbury, United Kingdom—(via US European Command), as Russia has turned those European cities and countries into homeland-hitting modern war labs. Second, US European Command would gain immeasurably by being tied more intimately to homeland defense because it is clear that Russia intends to use new technologies (particularly non-nuclear) to achieve Russian regional objectives by inducing strategic stalemate that holds America’s global power projection at bay. While the axiom holds that the “best defense is a good offense,” its corollary is equally true, that a good offense is strengthened by a good defense. Just as you can’t fire a cannon from a canoe, forward forces can’t fight overseas without the projection of power that flows from a secure homeland.

Homeland defense must also expand horizontally, as it is much wider than its mere military dimension. For just one example, nearly 750,000 miles of internet-enabling cable runs under the world’s oceans, over half of which is privately held (i.e., by companies including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon). It’s self-evident that attacks on major US industries and infrastructure are relevant to national and homeland defense. As such, if the current US Department of Defense buzzword is “global integration,” then a critical complementary initiative ought to be domestic defense integration. Other countries already practice this, like Finland does with its “National Defense Course” that regularly “bridge[s] the national-security gap between civil society and the armed forces” by inviting civilian leaders of all sectors into defense and security courses. American defense planners must do more to engage with the private sector and other diverse partners to influence, share understanding, and ultimately strengthen national response and resilience.

This widening process should also consider new dimensions to established partnerships, like with Mexico. When NORAD first came together in the late-1950s, the option to include Mexico in some capacity was considered (which is partly why the NORAD crest prominently includes Mexico), yet, diplomatic difficulties stopped this short of fulfillment. Nonetheless, the logic of Mexico’s merit to NORAD endures: Mexico would provide strategic depth to the south in exchange for American and Canadian defense resources and support (in the same way these benefits work with Canada to the north). Over the long haul, Mexico is poised to become a G7 country by mid-century, with an economy larger than those of Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Moreover, while the Russians have probed the far north for decades and decades, it seems distinctly likely going forward that they could also aim to disrupt and threaten via an indirect, southern approach through countries like Cuba and Venezuela.

There are more powers, more threats, more weapons, and more ways to hurt than ever before. The old way of thinking about classical deterrence is essentially dead. Instead of embracing conceptual corpses, it’s time to move on and breathe some intellectual life into new ways of thinking about deterrence, and in turn, defense. Getting homeland defense right is a deterrent all its own (by denial). A more robust, flexible defense means more relevant, flexible deterrent options for national security leadership, because they’ll have the confidence of a secure base from which to discourage adversaries from behavior at odds with American national interests overseas.

Americans have previously misjudged deterrence and threats to the homeland. In the years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the naval commander of all forces in the Pacific at the time, Rear Adm. Husband Kimmel, was overheard saying, “I never thought [the Japanese] could pull off such an attack so far from home.” Whether Kimmel merits most of the blame or was simply another unfortunate victim of an audacious attack matters less than the hard fact that Americans have wrongly felt secure in their mis-appreciation of deterrence and homeland defense before. The consequences of this mistake, of course, were painful.

As former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis pointed out in his new book, it’s always better to learn “from others who went before you.” Hopefully, American defense planners might learn from the pain of our own past mistakes as well as the Saudis’ recent experience—a type of attack we certainly haven’t seen the last of. The stakes are high. Hopefully the recent oilfield strikes will be enough to get American planners to think anew about deterrence and homeland defense, before the next big strike on critical national infrastructure hits a lot closer to home.

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