Air defense – a challenging issue
As an ex-air defense officer, I have followed news flow from different crisis theatres worldwide – also from this particular view point. This topic was studied shortly in my blog of February 5, 2021: “Drones and air defense systems in modern warfare”, which you can find in the blog section on this website.
I raised a spontaneous question “why the air defense systems were not activated in those Middle East cases”, primarily regarding the non-functioning of Patriot system. The core issue here is the air defense of forward-based ground forces and troops on global operative theatres.
The cases in my blog (Feb 5) were:
- On September 14, 2019, 18 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and seven cruise missiles were used for the attack on two Saudi Arabian oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais
- On January 8, 2020, only five days after Soleimani’s killing, the Iranians hit two military bases that housed American troops in Iraq with ballistic missiles
- On March 11, 2020, 18 rockets struck Iraq’s Camp Taji base, located north of Baghdad
- On June 18, 2020, Iranian-backed Iraqi militias fired rockets that struck the Green Zone in Baghdad, marking the fifth such attack within 10 days
Since then, some “new cases” have emerged as described here below.
Strikes in February 2021
On February 22, 2021, three rockets were fired at Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone without causing any casualties, only minor property damages. Security officials said the US Embassy was the target. The rockets were launched from the Salam area of Baghdad, a statement from the military said. No information on air defense activation. This was the third attack against the American presence in Iraq in a week.
Two other incidents were a rocket attack on the US base and Erbil international airport on February 15 and a rocket attack wounding personnel working for a US defense company at Balad airbase in Salahaddin province, on Saturday 20 February. Both places were defended by a US Patriot air defense system and a C-RAM rapid fire gun system there to protect the Patriot. There is no information of possible air defense activation, when a number of rockets slammed into the base and airport. The US and Iraq say they can account for 14 rockets that hit the airport and base; the terrorist group allegedly responsible said 22 rockets were fired.
The rockets used were an Iranian-Chinese version of a 107mm Katyusha rocket, probably a version of the Fajr-1. It is typically used in a tube launch in an array of 12 or more rockets –in effect a multiple rocket launcher (MLRS). Such launchers can be put on pickup trucks or towed. The missile itself is unguided and not very accurate. US air defense systems did not shoot down any rockets and there were no reports that neither the Patriot nor C-RAM systems were fired.
Strike on Ain al-Asad air base, March 3, 2021
In the morning of March 3, 2021, about 13-14 Katyusha-type rockets slammed into the Ain al-Asad airbase located in Anbar province in Western Iraq. Since the earlier attack in January 2020 by heavier Qiam-2 advanced tactical ballistic missiles launched from Iran, the airbase has been reinforced with air defenses that proved again unable to stop the rocket attack.
The rockets were 122 mm Arash variations made in Iran and were launched from a hidden set of launch tubes on a standard dump truck. Unlike the January 2020 attack, this assault originated not far from the airbase in the al-Bayader agricultural area near the town of al-Baghdadi. The Arash is reported to have a speed of about Mach 2. Given the distance covered, this works out to an 11-second flight trajectory from launch to target.
Arash rockets have an 18 kg high explosive warhead and are not guided but depend on launch angle and are fin-stabilized. However, Iran announced in 2020 it was introducing a guided version. There is no definitive information that the Arash rockets used here were guided but there was some evidence found that guided versions were used. It is notable that the rockets hit their target suggesting something more was involved than an unguided round. Very often Katyusha-type rockets miss their targets by a significant margin. This suggests that the rockets used may have been equipped with inertial guidance systems, GPS and internet links for control and guidance.
The US is supposed to have two air defense systems at Ain al-Asad: Patriot missile battery and a C-RAM. There is no information that either system was activated. Even if the C-RAM and Patriot systems did respond to the Katyushas, neither is ideally configured to counter this kind of threat. C-RAM is a gun system and the operator has to detect, aim and fire the gun to hit an incoming missile. Ten rockets arriving in quick succession would most likely overwhelm a C-RAM system even if it had detected the incoming rockets in time. The Patriot system is not designed to hit small artillery-round type rockets.
Unfortunately, in this attack, there was no early warning. When Ain al-Asad was attacked by Qiam-2 missiles in January 2020 there was a warning. The US knew the Iranians had accessed commercial satellites to pinpoint target locations on the base. It is also quite possible that preparation for the launch of the liquid-fueled Qiam-2 rockets was seen by spy satellites, although this has not been reported. Prior warning allowed time for personnel to enter hardened shelters and for vital equipment to be removed from the base.
It would seem there is a coverage gap for US forward defenses that was exploited by the enemy. The lack of an effective air defense system combined with the elusiveness of the enemy suggests that the US cannot passively defend its forward-based forces in places such as Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan.
There are three alternative defense possibilities to cope with the challenging air defense situation:
1) Pull US troops out of indefensible bases
In Washington, the present Biden administration, Defense Secretary Austin and several security authorities are mulling this possibility (of removing US troops from these bases) which may be the only viable near-term solution. Think tanks like RAND and the Atlantic Council have been drawing up plans to facilitate a US pull out from Iraq. As anti-US sentiment grows in Iraq and the country moves closer to Iran, now would be a good time for Joe Biden to reassess its presence there instead of targeting the Shi’ite militias making life difficult for the Americans.
2) Develop air defenses that can handle all threats
The US Army is working on a new integrated air defense system. However, most of the focus is on drones and cruise missiles. These are much slower flying threats than Katyusha rockets and fly over considerably longer distances, allowing a good response time once detected. But even if a comprehensive solution is developed (will take at least 5-10 years), fielding it is five to ten years more in the future, leaving forces in Iraq and elsewhere unprotected in the interim. No doubt, an Israeli Iron Dome is an attractive option to the US military, as stated in my previous blog.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps’ official website has shown a launch of missiles (nearly dozen at once) during a military drill in an unknown location in central Iran at the start of this year. Questions have been raised about the US ability to stop such an attack.
It seems that no US offshore bases have credible protection against ICBMs or frankly any other missile threat. The US needs a new start in air defense. Existing systems are not integrated, not layered and are from mediocre to poor performers.
3) Attack the source of the missiles
The third option, going after the source of the attack, as US President Joe Biden did after a US contractor was killed and eight others wounded in Erbil on February 15, also by Katyusha type rockets, does not assure that it will stop subsequent attacks, as the attack on Ain al-Asad airbase clearly shows. The US attack on the Iraqi militia’s positions in Syria – near the border with Iraq – took place on the night between 25 and 26 February and came in retaliation for a series of rocket attacks on American positions in Baghdad. Hitting the militias in one point, does not stop others rocketing in another place.
Direct strikes on Iran avoided, so far
The US has not responded to Iranian-sponsored attacks by striking directly to Iran and neither has Saudi Arabia, which has suffered attacks from Iranian proxies in Yemen and with direct attacks from Iran in the case of the Khurais and Abqaiq oil installations in September 2019.
On February 27 of this year, a combined ballistic missile and drone attack on the Saudi Capital of Riyadh took place where both the drones and missiles have been attributed to the Houthis in Yemen, Iranian proxies but may also have been launched from either Iran or nearby northern Iraq. Yemen is far from Riyadh and the type of missile and drones used are different from those known to be in the hands of the Houthis.
Both the US and Saudi Arabia do not want a direct war with Iran, affording Iran the unique position of killing US troops and contractors and destroying infrastructure in both countries. While the US can pull its troops out of Iraq, Saudi Arabia has no such option. In the meantime, protecting US bases abroad will remain challenging, perhaps impossible.
President Joe Biden faces “serious dilemmas” in Afghanistan as a deadline to withdraw troops nears and the Taliban show no sign of ending their resistance. Biden has ordered a review of the deal Washington cut with the Taliban last year, which promised the withdrawal of all foreign forces by May 1, 2021 in return for security guarantees from the militants and a commitment to peace talks with the Afghan government.
If Washington decided to keep troops on after the deadline, US forces faced coming under attack once again — following a year without a single American death in combat. But if the United States pulls out as scheduled, it leaves the fragile Afghan government at the mercy of a determined insurgent force that could result in fresh carnage that would be impossible for the world to ignore.
The Pentagon has over the past year reduced the number of US troops in Afghanistan to 2,500, while NATO defense ministers decided to keep indefinitely their 10,000 personnel in the country — most in backroom support roles. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has urged Biden to avoid rushing the withdrawal and wants the US to put more pressure on the Taliban to make concessions at ongoing peace talks in Doha, Qatar.
As an ominous event in late February 2021, the Taliban has taken over a large Afghan security force base in Badghis province in northern Afghanistan, a former US-led coalition base. Take-over was preceded by fierce fighting between Taliban fighters and the garrison of the Bala Murghab base.
There is no doubt that the US needs better protection for troops at forward bases in the Middle East and elsewhere but existing tools simply do not provide a level of protection commensurate with the risk. Unfortunately, while US bases have been attacked fairly frequently by rockets and missiles, the sense of urgency in the US Army and the Pentagon seems to be missing.
The time period from now on to the summer 2021 will be crucial regarding the protection of forward-based US troops in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and this matters not only US troops but the deployed coalition forces as well. Without quick extra local air defense arrangements, the troops are set under extra local military risk.