On September 14, several explosions rocked the Khurais oilfield as well as the Abqaiq refinery, one of Saudi Arabia’s most vital petrochemical installations. Several hours later, the Houthis claimed that they had targeted both facilities with ten drones as part of their “Balance of Deterrence” campaign.
What made this attack different from other recorded Houthi drone attacks was not only the unprecedented amount of material damage caused but also lingering doubt about the nature and the attribution of the attack. First, a video allegedly showing flying objects entering Kuwaiti airspace led to speculation that like a previous “Houthi” drone attack this strike might actually have originated in Iraq or even Iran. While the video remains unverified, the fact that the Kuwaiti government launched a probe into the issue lends some credence to the idea that something might have happened over Kuwait that day. Speculation about the origins of the attack was further fueled by a tweet by Mike Pompeo in which he claimed that there was no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.
Then the question arose whether drones had been used at all, or whether the attack might in fact have been a missile strike. Previous Houthi drone strikes against oil facilities tended to result in quite limited damage which could be an indication that a different weapons system was used this time. Indeed, Aramco came to the conclusion that its facilities were attacked by missiles. Even more curious, several pictures began to emerge on social media purportedly showing the wreckage of a missile in the Saudi desert. While the images appear real, neither the date the photos were taken nor their location can be verified. Social media users quickly claimed the images showed a crashed Iranian-made Soumar cruise missile. The Soumar and its updated version, the Hoveyzeh, are Iran’s attempts at reverse-engineering the Soviet-designed KH-55 cruise missile, several of which the country illegally imported from Ukraine in the early 2000s. Others claimed it was the Quds 1, a recently unveiled Houthi cruise missile often claimed to be a rebranded Soumar.
While at this point there are still more questions about the attack than answers, it might be a good idea to take a closer look at the Quds 1. Do the pictures in the desert actually show a Quds 1? And is the Quds 1 really just a smuggled Soumar?
The story of the Quds 1 begins in mid-June 2019, when a cruise missile fired by the Houthis hit the terminal of Abha Airport in Southern Saudi Arabia, wounding a total of 26 passengers. Not long afterwards, Saudi Arabia held a press conference showing images of the missile’s wreckage and claiming that the missile in question was an Iranian Ya Ali cruise missile. The Ya Ali is a much smaller missile than the Soumar and while the newest version of the Soumar has a range of up to 1350km, the Ya Ali’s range is limited to about 700km. With Abha airport being located only 110km from the Yemeni border, using a smaller, shorter-range system seemed to make sense. However, there was an inconsistency. The rounded wings and stabilizers shown in the Saudi presentation did not match the Ya Ali. Instead they were more reminiscent of the Soumar.
Only a few weeks later, in early July, the Houthis opened a large static display of their ballistic missile and drone arsenal. One of the surprises unveiled at the show was a cruise missile named Quds 1 (Jerusalem 1) which the Houthis claimed to have indigenously developed.
Noting the overall similarity in design with the Soumar, many observers claimed Iran had simply smuggled it to Yemen where the Houthis gave it a new paint job and a new name, as they had done before with the Qiam. Well, it turns out cruise missiles are a lot like wines or pictures of Joe Biden. At first they all appear to be the same but once you spend enough time on them, you realize there are quite a few differences. Differences between the Quds 1 and the Soumar include the entire booster design, the wing position, the Quds 1’s fixed wings, the shape of the nose cone, the shape of the aft fuselage, the position of the stabilizers and the shape of the engine cover and exhaust.
The differences in the shape of the aft fuselage and the position of the stabilizers make it clear that the wreckage in the desert is much more likely to be a Quds 1 than a Soumar.
There is yet another apparent difference between the Quds 1 and the Soumar/Hoveyzeh: size. A quick measurement using MK1 Eyeball reveals that the Quds 1 seems to be smaller in diameter than the Soumar.
But while MK1 Eyeball works fine, measuring is always a little more objective. So let’s go back to the Saudi presentation for a second. When describing the remnants of the alleged Ya Ali that hit Abha airport, the Saudis mentioned that among the wreckage they found a jet engine named TJ-100.
A quick search reveals that there indeed is a small turbojet engine called TJ100. The engine is produced by the Czech company PBS Aerospace which describes it as being especially suitable for applications in UAVs, one of its uses being the Spanish/Brazilian Diana target drone. Oh yeah, and you can also totally use it to convert your glider into a jet, which is pretty cool.
When comparing the engine seen on the Quds 1 and the TJ100 it seems pretty clear that whatever powers the Quds 1 is either a TJ100 or pretty much an exact copy of it. An engine displayed at an Iranian drone exhibition again shows stunning similarities with the TJ100, implying that Iran is producing a copy of the Czech engine for use in some of its drones.
Knowing the dimensions of the TJ100, one can precisely measure the diameter of the Quds 1. With 34cm it is significantly smaller than the Soumar, which retains the original KH-55’s diameter of 51,4cm.
However, the Qud 1’s use of a TJ100 is interesting for more reasons than just measurements. First, the fact that the Quds 1 uses the same engine type that was found in Abha makes it highly likely that the missile that hit Abha’s terminal was a Quds-1 simply mislabeled by Saudi Arabia. The Quds 1’s design also corresponds to the rounded wing and stabilizers found at the scene.
Second, knowing more details about the engine gives us some insights into the performance of the missile. Both the KH-55 and the Soumar use fuel efficient turbofan engines. The TJ100 however not only has much lower thrust than the original KH-55 engine but also is just your regular old turbojet. This leads to some questions about range. Both the missile’s smaller size and its more fuel-hungry engine make it seem unlikely it’s range would be anywhere close to the the Soumar’s/Hoveyzeh’s range of 1350km.
If the pictures showing the Quds 1 wreckage in Saudi Arabia are indeed connected to the recent Abqaiq attack, it would seem more likely that the attack originated from a place closer to Eastern Saudi Arabia than Northern Yemen – potentially Iraq, Iran or perhaps even from ships. But then again that is a big if at the current moment.
All of this leaves the question of just who developed and built the Quds 1. The idea that impoverished war-torn Yemen would be able to develop a cruise missile without any outside assistance seems far-fetched. Iran’s previous supply of missiles to the Houthis and the fact that the country uses TJ100 engines in its drone program do imply that the Iran could be behind the Quds 1.
However, so far we haven’t seen any trace of the Quds 1 in Iran proper. This riddle is not unique to the Quds 1. Beginning in 2018, several missile systems began to emerge in Yemen that while broadly similar to Iranian-designed systems have no exact Iranian equivalent. These missiles include the Badr-1P and the Badr-F precision-guided solid-fuel short range missiles
Is Iran secretly designing, testing and producing missile systems for exclusive use by its proxies? We might have to wait for Tehran Timmy to show up in Sanaa or the Donald to tweet another high-res satellite pic to find the answer.