A missile from Israel's Iron Dome defense system is launched during Operation Pillar of Defense to intercept a missile coming from the Gaza strip. Photo: Israel Defense Forces / Nehemiya Gershoni

The US Department of Defense has announced it will send additional troops and possibly the Israeli Iron Dome system to Saudi Arabia and the UAE to reinforce air defenses. While the exact locations for additional air defenses have not been announced, the most likely deployment would be along Saudi Arabia’s northern border facing Iraq and Iran. The US will also install some point defense systems (radars plus guns) around critical oil facilities and military bases.

The Israeli Iron Dome system is the best system for protecting Saudi assets from a similar attack. The US Army bought two Iron Dome batteries from Israel with delivery expected in 2020. Whether Israel could quickly deliver a system to meet the current urgent need is unclear. Right now the US lacks ideal systems to counter cruise missiles and drones.

Iron Dome was developed by Rafael in Israel and Raytheon in the United States to deal with the threat of short-range missiles, primarily those being fired by Hamas in the Gaza strip. The system has performed brilliantly against these threats. Each Iron Dome battery includes three to four stationary launchers that contain  20 Tamir interceptor missiles and a battlefield radar system. The US is buying 240 Tamir interceptor missiles, 12 launchers, and two radar systems and command trailers.

The Iron Dome system has performed remarkably well over the past eight years, according to defense writer Sébastien Roblin. “Since 2011, the Israel Defense Force has used the Iron Dome system to shoot down over 1,700 unguided rockets and mortar shells launched by militants in Lebanon, Syria, and the Gaza Strip against Israeli communities. An Iron Dome battery can also engage aircraft, drones, large artillery shells and possibly even cruise and ballistic missiles – as proven by its shootdown of an Iranian Fateh ballistic missile on January 20, 2019.”

It is likely the US will also temporarily deploy additional Patriot air defense batteries, particularly around the oil fields, and put radars on towers to better detect incoming cruise missiles and drones. Patriot was never optimized against cruise missiles or drones, but it can nevertheless provide some defensive capability.

Patriot can be augmented by rapid-fire gun emplacements that can provide terminal defense. These can be cued by ground-based radar and feature electro-optical sensors.

The best of them is the Navy’s Phalanx rapid-fire 20mm gun system. The land version of Phalanx is called C-RAM for counter rocket, artillery and mortar system and has a forward-looking infrared camera to identify incoming threats. The US and British forces used C-RAM in Iraq.

There are other systems in Europe that might be available if the US asked for them. These include the  Nächstbereichschutzsystem MANTIS: 35mm fully automated C-RAM system, produced by Rheinmetall based on Oerlikon’s Skyshield and ordered by the German Air Force and in use from 2011.

Italy also has an excellent system called DRACO that uses a super-rapid 76mm gun. Its main advantage is its 76mm (3 inch) round which can effectively destroy larger threats such as cruise missiles. The 20mm rapid-fire systems probably need to hit larger targets multiple times.

It has to be strongly emphasized that the US is poorly prepared against cruise missile and drone threats, which is why it turned to Israel for help.

Training will be a critical issue for US Army and Air Force personnel to learn to deal with cruise missile and drone threats. At the moment, US forces are not trained for this sort of mission but might receive training from Israel which has faced such threats for some time. Israel could give this help bilaterally and might even attach some of their personnel to US forces. Of course, Saudi and UAE permission might be needed, but it is unlikely the help would be rejected under the circumstances.

An additional problem is the need to eliminate spies that have been planted in Saudi Arabia by Iran. There isn’t much doubt that infiltrators around the oil installations directed the cruise missiles and drones to their targets. Whether they used TV guidance or laser is irrelevant: what matters is that they were able to move about in the Kingdom with equipment supplied for that purpose. These threats need to be found and removed.

The addition of US forces is, of course in lieu of retaliation against Iran. But in this kind of warfare, the defender is always at a major disadvantage if he has to wait to be attacked and can’t knock out the threat at its origin point. Israel, for example, has aggressively gone after drone and missile threats and knocked them out, whenever it can find them, using excellent intelligence and sophisticated and coordinated counter-threat operations.

US intelligence is far from adequate. Whatever forces are moved to the Kingdom, the lack of adequate intelligence remains a major problem. The Defense Department will have to dig deep into its bag of intelligence tricks to operate a credible defensive system in the region. Most noteworthy, much more attention will have to be given to human intelligence (HUMINT) than relying solely on technical intelligence (for example, ELINT or electronic intelligence). Whether this can be achieved is open to debate.

Overall the US move is only a first step, but its deficiencies have one silver lining: the US will now be obliged to more rapidly move toward a proper defense capability against cruise missiles and drones.

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