A worker inspects damage at the Erbil Airport from a rocket attack on February 15, 2021. Photo: Safin Hamed / AFP

The attack on the US military base at Erbil – in the Kurdistan region of Iraq – and the nearby Erbil airport illustrates once again that US defenses against rocket attacks are inadequate and, for the most part, don’t work.

As far as can be determined, Erbil was 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 to suggest that either system was activated 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 says 22 rockets were fired.

Last April the Defense Department confirmed it had deployed two Patriot batteries in Iraq – one at the Ain al-Asad Air Base and the other at the Erbil military base.

While Erbil has been described as “well defended” there is no mention so far of any attempt to shoot down incoming missiles.

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, or MLRS.  Such launchers can be put on pickup trucks or towed. Kurdish authorities found a Kia vehicle containing a launcher abandoned on the side of the road.  The missile itself is unguided and not very accurate.

The Guardians of the Blood Brigade provided an audio recording of why they struck the base claiming the “enemy” could not find the location of the rocket launchers.  Entifadh Qanbar, a former Iraqi senior defense official, provided an audio translation.

It appears that the terrorists were able to hit the military base from outside its extensive security zone. That zone appears to have been an area outside the base of around 8 km that was intended to protect against Katyusha rocket attacks.  A standard 107mm rocket has a range of no more than 8.3 km.  However, there are extended versions of the Fajr that can go up to 10 km and foreign versions such as the EDePro ER version, made in Belgrade and heavily advertised, that has a range of 11.5 km. The security perimeter may not have accounted for the extended version of these rockets. 

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. 

The Patriot was never designed to go after small missiles such as the 107mm Katyusha.  Israel, which faces small rocket attacks coming from Gaza, developed the Iron Dome air defense system for this purpose. It has over 2,000 successful intercepts primarily against small rockets, mostly different versions of the Qassam rocket.  These have a diameter of 115mm, or close to the same size as the Katyusha/Fajr rockets.

Under pressure from the US Congress, the US Army bought two Iron Dome systems from Israel which the army is starting to test.  The Army has no current plan to deploy the Iron Dome system and has made no urgent requests to Israel for help in defeating threats from small rockets.

The Patriot system has a spotty record against larger ballistic missiles but appears to have been fooled by cruise missiles and drones. Patriot never picked up cruise missiles and drones when Saudi oil facilities were hit on September 14, 2020.

C-RAM is a rapid-firing land-based gun system based on the US Navy CIWS Phalanx.  The Phalanx has always been thought of as a weapon of last resort that can be overwhelmed by sea-skimming missiles and by swarming small boats laden with explosives.  One C-RAM system in the Green Zone protecting the US Embassy may have succeeded in hitting some incoming small rockets, but the small rockets may also simply have missed their target.  The US did not claim any success and admitted that one rocket did hit the embassy compound.  

There is no doubt that the US needs to better protect troops at forward bases in the Middle East and elsewhere, but existing tools simply don’t 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.