U.S. forces in Iraq are likely to get limited air defense in the wake of the recent Iranian ballistic missile attack. It's been a long time coming, after more than a dozen rocket attacks over the past year on bases housing U.S. forces across Iraq. One U.S. contractor was killed in December 2019 and up to 34 U.S. troops were injured in the missile attack on Ayn al-Assad base in January. This could have been prevented by multi-layered air defense, the kind that Israel has pioneered to confront rocket threats from Gaza, Lebanon and from Iranian-backed groups in Syria. Israel's Iron Dome confronted 2,600 rockets in the past two years and Israel's other systems have confronted threats from Syria.
Israel developed its Iron Dome, David Sling and Arrow 3 systems over decades with U.S. financial support. These programs have a potential role in the U.S. The David Sling missile interceptor, for example, can be inserted into the Patriot missile system. Raytheon's SkyHunter interceptor was developed as the U.S. version of Iron Dome. What is unique about Israel's concept of multi-layered defense is that it addresses not only larger threats, such as ballistic missiles, but also short-range rockets, mortars and medium-range threats. The Pentagon historically has lacked enough air defense to protect forces from short-range threats, including the types aimed at U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria.
The U.S. military has a variety of missile defense systems, such as the Patriot, Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) and Aegis ballistic missile defense. However, the Iranian attack on U.S. forces in Iraq revealed a major vulnerability. It comes in the wake of the Iranian drone swarm and cruise-missile attack on the Abqaiq oil facility in Saudi Arabia in September, and rocket attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq carried out by Iranian-backed militias. In each case, there either was no air defense or it didn't work properly. This leaves U.S. troops and allies naked on the battlefield in a modern era when adversaries are developing numerous threats from drones to rockets and missiles.
This isn't the old days of Scud missiles and ICBMs. The name of the game in 2020 is for countries such as Iran and its plethora of militia allies to use smaller rockets with drones and ballistic missiles. Iran moved began moving ballistic missiles to Iraq in August 2018.
The Pentagon in recent years recognized the problem but needs to move faster to fill the defense gap. The U.S. Army wants a variety of ways to fill the gap in short-range air defense, often called SHORAD. Israel's Iron Dome was seen as a good option last February, and the army signed a contract for two batteries in August. The U.S. Marine Corps also looked at Iron Dome for its needs. Yet two batteries are not enough to cover the vast areas where U.S. troops are located and where they face rocket threats. In Iraq alone, U.S. forces have been fired upon with rockets and mortars at Q-West base near Mosul, at K-1 near Kirkuk and south down to Baghdad and out in Anbar province. A dozen Iron Dome batteries would be needed to cover all these locations. Unsurprisingly, modern armies also want more mobile air defense that can travel on trucks and protect against mortars and rockets.
The U.S.-Israel defense partnership has thrived in recent years, with Israeli and American companies partnering on projects and Israel supplying the U.S. with components such as Israel's IAI supplying wings for the Lockheed Martin F-35. Air defense now offers a unique opportunity for the U.S. to benefit from Israel's experience and expertise. Having invested heftily on supporting Israel's missile defense, including $500 million in the latest congressional appropriations bill, the U.S. could benefit from the capabilities in a return on investment.
Countries such as Iran have developed a multi-layered system of missiles, drones and other threats. Iran proliferates them to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iraqi and Syrian militias. It is only a matter of time before more rockets and missiles fall on U.S. bases, and incorporating Israeli technology could save American lives.
Seth Frantzman, a Middle East Forum writing fellow, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting & Analysis.