A battery of Israel's Iron Dome defense system, designed to intercept and destroy incoming short-range rockets and artillery shells, in Mount Hermon in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on January 21, 2019. Photo: AFP/Jalaa Marey

At 7:35pm local time in Iraq on March 11, 18 107mm Katyusha rockets hit the Camp Taji Base that hosts US and coalition troops. The base did not have any missile defenses.

The attack used Iran-supplied weapons and probably was backed by the Iranian regime.  The rocket attack killed three soldiers, two Americans and one British. An unspecified number of others on the base were wounded.

The camp is approximately 17 miles north of Baghdad. The US and coalition units stationed at Camp Taji are there to train Iraqi troops, mainly for the fight against ISIS. The last time the base was hit by rockets was in May, 2011, when 120 small rockets were fired into it.

Until recently, the US had no suitable air defense system that was capable of destroying incoming Katyusha rockets. These types of rockets date back to World War II and the name in English actually means “Little Katy.” 

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

Iron Dome deal

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

Officially the army said it was canceling its procurement because Israel did not supply it with any data on Iron Dome’s effectiveness against cruise missiles. That “requirement,” if, in fact, it was a requirement, was never part of the reason the army urgently purchased Iron Dome. 

Moreover, Israel has no experience using Iron Dome against cruise missiles because the country has not been attacked by cruise missiles.

Next, the army shifted its argument and its reason for canceling Iron Dome. It claimed it could not accept the Iron Dome system because Israel “refused” to supply source code that would enable the integration of Iron Dome with other army “assets,” presumably radars.

Source code is rarely exported by any defense manufacturer even if “safeguards” are proposed, for security reasons and to prevent cloning of the system by competitors. The US has a shoddy track record in safeguarding foreign intellectual property, although the US always steadfastly refuses to export any source code of its home-built defense products.

The security reason is self-evident. The release of source code puts the integrity of the code at risk, and if an adversary gets its hands on the source code, it could not only copy the system, but also pick out vulnerabilities and design countermeasures.

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

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

US pulls out

All of this begs the question as to why the US army killed one of the most successful air defense systems ever fielded.

Iron Dome has shot down more than 2,000 missiles, mainly those fired from Gaza at Israeli targets, and has a very high effectiveness rate, better than 95%. Even so, the US army was willing to sacrifice the protection of its soldiers and the soldiers of its coalition partners, for no good reason.

Some experts in Washington see the cancellation of Iron Dome as a repetition of the Pentagon’s cancellation of its participation in the MEADS program. MEADS was a project for a Medium Extended Range Air Defense System to replace the US Patriot, an aging air defense system which has performed erratically. 

The program included the US, Italy and Germany. But 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 looks like the Israelis are being treated no differently than how America treated its European partners.

It is not yet clear if Congress will take up the Iron Dome Army cancellation issue. Congress has authorized overwhelming support for Iron Dome with hugely lopsided votes favoring funding the program in Israel. 

There would seem to be a clear case for supporting Iron Dome for deployed US forces, especially since there isn’t any alternative. Until the matter is settled, US and coalition forces will be blasted by rockets and more soldiers will be wounded or die.