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

Earlier this week, 18 107 mm Katyusha rockets slammed into Camp Taji, a facility that hosts US and coalition troops. The base did not have any missile defense system to protect it from an attack using Iran-supplied weapons, probably backed by the Iranian regime. Three soldiers – two Americans and one British – were killed and an unspecified number were wounded.

The camp, located about 27km north of Baghdad, supported US and coalition forces who trained Iraqi troops in the fight against ISIS. The last time the base was hit by rockets was in May 2011 when 120 small rockets were unleashed on the facility.

Until recently, the US had no air defense system capable of stopping incoming Katyusha rockets, which date back to World War II and are known as “Little Katy” in English.

Islamic, Iran-backed opposition groups in Iraq have both 107 mm and 122 mm Katyushas. Generally speaking, these are short-range rockets able to travel 8,500 meters with questionable accuracy. Depending on the model, they can carry 10 to 20 kg high-explosive warheads or be equipped with anti-personnel submunitions. All the rockets in Iraq come from Iran. 

Last year the US Army agreed to purchase Israel’s Iron Dome system, which is designed to deal with short-range rockets. Last week the Army abruptly canceled the procurement.

Officially the Army said it was canceling the order because Israel did not supply any data on the system’s effectiveness against cruise missiles. That supposed “requirement” was never part of the rationale for purchasing the Iron Dome system since Israel had never used it against cruise missiles – none had ever been fired on Israel.

Then the Army changed its rationale for canceling the system, claiming it could not accept Iron Dome because Israel “refused” to supply source code that would enable the integration of the system with other Army “assets,” presumably radar systems.

Source code is rarely supplied by defense manufacturers even if “safeguards” are offered. Manufacturers lock down the source code for security reasons and to prevent cloning of the system by competitors. 

The US has a shoddy track record in safeguarding foreign intellectual property and steadfastly refuses to export any source code from home-built defense products. Security concerns are self-evident: if an adversary got its hands on the source code, it could copy the system, detect vulnerabilities and build countermeasures.

In any case, source code is not needed to integrate air defense systems with other radars or command and control systems. The US exports missile defense frameworks such as the Patriot system, which is easily integrated with command and control systems and remote radars, without providing source code.

Most importantly, the Iron Dome deal was for the delivery of an integrated, stand-alone air defense and source code was not part of the contract.

All of this begs the question as to why the US Army killed the deal to buy one of the most successful air defense systems ever offered. Iron Dome has shot down more than 2,000 missiles, mainly those fired from Gaza at Israeli targets, and has an effectiveness rate of more than 95%.

It seems the US Army was willing to sacrifice the protection of its soldiers and coalition partners for no good reason.

Some experts in Washington see the cancellation of Iron Dome as a repeat of the Pentagon’s withdrawal from the MEADS program – the Medium Extended Range Air Defense System which could have replaced the aging and erratic US Patriot system. MEADS involved the US, Italy and Germany and some say the US pulled out under pressure from the Army and Raytheon (the Patriot contractor) who saw it as a threat. The Army said MEADS was unaffordable.

It appears the Israelis are being treated no differently than how America treated its European partners.

It is not yet clear whether Congress will look into the Iron Dome cancellation, despite authorizing overwhelming support for the system. There seems to be a clear case for purchasing Iron Dome to protect US forces. Clearly, there isn’t an alternative. 

Until the matter is settled, US and coalition forces will remain vulnerable to rockets and more soldiers could be killed or wounded.