Yet again a US forward operating base – shared with the Iraqi Air Force – at Ain al-Asad was hit by rockets. There was one death, allegedly from a heart attack during the attack, and six injured – five contractors and one US service member. 

There was no prior warning and, it appears, the air defenses at the base failed to detect the threat or respond to the incoming missiles.

How do we know this? There is drone video of part of the attack that shows six incoming rockets. There are no interceptor rockets or tracer rounds from the ground trying to knock down the rockets. Hence, there was no air defense response.

The big question is this: Why didn’t the Pentagon ask Israel to supply Iron Dome systems that could have defeated any rocket, drone, artillery, mortar or cruise missile attack?

The US Army, which is responsible for tactical ground-based air defense systems, is the actual culprit by foul-mouthing the Iron Dome system for the past couple of years, despite its amazingly stellar record of missile and rocket intercepts.

But the army hates Iron Dome – they see it as a threat to their own project called the Integrated Air and Missile Defense Command System, a system that is still on the drawing board, is not fully funded and may not see the light of day for at least 5 years or longer, if it proves successful and if it is funded.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon appears to have arranged to supply Iron Dome to unnamed Gulf States, probably the UAE and Saudi Arabia. That news was originally leaked by the Israeli left-wing newspaper, Ha’aretz.

Reading the few available reports on the Gulf States deal, either the Iron Dome will be used to protect US bases in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, possibly even Oman and Qatar, or Iron Dome will be sold directly to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, but not the others, or even both.

This handout image provided by Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Media on February 10, 2021, reportedly shows the wreckage of an unmanned aerial vehicle that was used in an attack on Abha International Airport in Saudi Arabia’s southern Asir province. Photo: AFP/Saudi Ministry of Media

Saudi Arabia weakness

It is well known that Saudi Arabia has been trying to buy Iron Dome for the past couple of years. The reason is straightforward: Saudi Arabia does not have a modern air defense capability against cruise missiles and drones. This was dramatically illustrated by two recent attacks.

The well-known attack on the Khurais and Abqaiq oil facilities featured both drones and cruise missiles. Positioned around Abqaiq were two tactical air defense systems – Oerlikon GDF 35mm cannons equipped with the Skyguard radar and a version of France’s Crotale called Shahine. 

In addition, the area was protected by a Patriot system near Riyadh – the Patriot battery near Abqaiq had been moved sometime after April 2019, but before September 2019, based on satellite imagery.

As far as is known, none of the missile defenses around Abqaiq responded to the attack of Iranian cruise missiles and armed drones.

Fast forward to January 3, 2021. Three drones launched from northern Iraq, not from Houthi-land as the Houthis have claimed, were aimed at the Yamama Saudi Royal Palace in Riyadh. At least one of the drones hit the palace grounds.

Modern Patriot-GEM interceptors were fired but probably did not hit the drones. The Patriot-GEM was much more successful in hitting a Qiam-2 ballistic missile that was also aimed at Riyadh – what it was aimed at is not clear.

It seems the Patriot has difficulty seeing drones, and even when it detects them the drones are already over their target. Of course, Patriot was not designed to deal with drones or with small rockets or cruise missiles.

Today the only other answer to small rockets, drones and cruise missiles is the army’s Centurion C-RAM. C-RAM is a land version of the Navy’s Phalanx CIWS – close weapons intercept system. CIWS is a rapid-firing gun system that has special ammunition. 

US embassy targeted

It has six rotating barrels firing 20mm rounds at the rate of 4,500 rounds per minute, although the gun’s ammunition canister can hold only about 1,500 rounds.

It uses pulse doppler monopulse radar for tracking and a FLIR E/O system to try and pick out the incoming threat. C-RAM is positioned at the Ain al-Asad airbase and also is positioned around the US Embassy in the Green Zone.

In December 2020 at least eight Katyusha rockets were fired at the US Embassy compound. According to a US military statement: “Most of the missiles hit a residential complex and a security checkpoint inside the zone, damaging buildings and cars and wounding one Iraqi soldier.” 

The type of Katyushas used are notoriously inaccurate. The embassy C-RAM system was activated but it does not appear to have hit anything.

C-RAM’s parent system, Phalanx, has always been considered a system of last resort. No CIWS system has actually shot down a missile in actual combat. Additionally, “Phalanx did not fail but was simply switched to standby when USS Stark was hit by two air-launched Exocets fired by an Iraqi Mirage jet in March 1987.

During the first Gulf war in 1991, the Phalanx onboard USS Jarret in automatic mode fired at a chaff cloud launched by USS Missouri in response to an attack by an Iraqi Silkworm missile. Several rounds hit Missouri, fortunately without causing casualties and the Silkworm was destroyed by a Sea Dart fired by HMS Gloucester.

In June 1996, the Phalanx-equipped Japanese destroyer Yugiri accidentally shot down a USN A6 Intruder that was towing a radar target during a joint gunnery exercise. It was determined the operations team on the destroyer opened fire before the aircraft was outside of the Phalanx’s “engagement envelope.”

Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government’s peshmerga forces attack with katyusha rockets in Mosul, Iraq, on October 20, 2016. Photo: AFP/Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency

Detection problems

A key problem with CIWS is that its radar is dated and has a limited field of view. It uses a Ku band pulse doppler radar which has a moving target indicator capability. Pulse doppler radars have problems with fast-moving objects. 

The Katyusha rockets fly at Mach-2, making detection and target resolution very difficult. Drones, on the other hand, can be stealthy and hard to detect as well. CIWS was designed against fairly slow sea-skimming missiles, but has problems with faster moving ones such as Exocet.

Unlike both the army and navy CIWS, Iron Dome has a modern S-band multi-mission AESA radar made by Israel’s Elta (ELM-2084). The Iron Dome radar, according to the US Missile Defense Agency, “detects the nature of incoming rounds and sends that information to the Iron Dome to intercept the incoming projectile.”

The system is also purposed to detect artillery and can locate the source of enemy artillery fire and predict the trajectory and point of impact within the friendly zone for incoming artillery shells, missiles and mortars. 

This radar is equipped with an “advanced active electronically steered array (AESA)” which allows it to compile a 3D Air Situation Picture in real-time. The physical radar rotates in accordance with incoming projectiles to update the air picture and accurately track projectiles through the flight.

The ELM 2084 uses an S-Band radar that can detect up to 1,100 different targets simultaneously at a maximum range of 470 kilometers. The radar system consists of high mobility features that allow it to be moved on short notice. Additionally, the ELM 2084 has remote operation capabilities, allowing operation from a distance.

As shown in numerous rocket attacks on Israel, the Iron Dome has destroyed more than 2,500 incoming rockets with a kill rate of better than 85%. The system does not have problems detecting incoming threats.

An Israeli Iron Dome anti-rocket system and an American Patriot missile defense system are shown during a joint US-Israel military exercise on March 8, 2018. Photo: AFP/Getty/Jack Guez

Army’s ‘problems’ with Iron Dome

The US army has raised two issues with Iron Dome. The first, and most serious, is that the Israelis would not share the source code for Iron Dome, for making integration into the Army’s Integrated Air and Missile Defense Command System.

The second is the army’s claim that Iron Dome was not proven against cruise missiles.

Israel, at the time, had not tested Iron Dome against cruise missiles because no cruise missiles had been fired at Israel and it was a low priority threat. Even so, Israel believed and advertised Iron Dome as capable of detecting and destroying cruise missiles.

There are different types of cruise missiles depending on their design and how they are launched. For example, the US Tomahawk cruise missile can be launched from underwater, from surface ships, from land and from aircraft. It uses a TERCOM scene matching system and GPS. 

Other cruise missiles, Russian, Chinese, Iranian, may have more conventional navigation systems with inertial guidance systems and may use GPS. Almost all use some kind of rocket boost for launch and turbine/jet for power. 

Some cruise missiles can fly most of their travel at medium altitude and only drop down to a target in the final flight phase. Others can follow the terrain, like Tomahawk, and fly close to the ground, making detection difficult.

When Khurais and Abqaiq were hit by Iranian cruise missiles – modified to use a Czech engine so as to be hard to identify the missile source – Israeli experts came to believe that Iran had relatively long-range accurate cruise missiles. From an Israeli perspective, this was a game-changer, since the Iranian cruise missiles hit their targets and except for a couple of cruise missiles that unaccountably crashed, destroyed critical parts of the two oil facilities.

In mid-December, 2020, Israel conducted live-fire tests against cruise missiles and longer-range ballistic missiles. The purpose of the test was to demonstrate the interoperability of multilayer defense systems –one medium-range ballistic missile was destroyed by David’s Sling, a system similar to the Patriot that shares the same radar as Iron Dome. 

The cruise missile was destroyed by Iron Dome. Yet another missile was knocked out by Israel’s Arrow II system. “According to Israel’s Ministry of Defense and Rafael, the tests were successful in thwarting attacks simulating a recent Iranian cruise missile strike on Saudi oil facilities.”

As a practical matter, the Israeli tests answered the US army complaint about non-testing against cruise missiles and went further, demonstrating the system could be easily made interoperable with higher-level systems. 

The planned US army system is built around Patriot, and David’s Sling does what Patriot does. David’s Sling includes the Stunner Interceptor Missile which is being adapted to work with the US Patriot. Poland is the first international customer for Stunner, called Skyceptor by Raytheon.

'The immediate danger comes from more mundane uses of AI — such as analysis of personal information and “open-source” data.' Photo: iStock / Getty
Source codes have been a problem. Photo: iStock / Getty

Source codes

Source codes are the original software instructions usually written in a specific computer language such as Basic or C+.  Most defense department programs are written in Ada language, which has very limited commercial use.

The Defense Department almost never releases source code to foreign users. Instead, it provides software and firmware in object code format. Object code is what happens to source code after it is compiled – the type of compiler depends on the language the software was written in.

Object code cannot be reversed into Source Code. So, for example, if you had a copy of Microsoft Office, which would be in Object Code format, you can’t reverse engineer it by turning your copy into Source Code.

The army claimed that it needed the source code in order to integrate the software of Iron Dome into its Integrated Air and Missile Defense system.

There is not any doubt that the army would need to have a means of interfacing with Iron Dome. In a multilayer system, there would have to be a central command center that can interface with the various components in the system. This means it would have to take the radar and other sensor inputs, evaluate them using some algorithms, and then send commands and location information to whatever systems have been selected to fire at the incoming threat.

Such an interface is called an API for Application Program Interface. When Israel tested the Iron Dome, David’s Sling and its Arrow ballistic defense systems, the Israeli Ballistic Missile Defense Organization developed the interface, partnered with the US Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. 

US BMDO participated because all the Israeli missile defense systems are funded in part by the US government. It also means that how to prepare a proper multilayered interface is information that both Israel and the US now have. It may be that the army now knows that because the army is no longer talking about the Source Code problem.

Why isn’t Iron Dome deployed

All of this raises the issue of why wasn’t an Iron Dome system deployed in Iraq, especially at Ain al-Asad in the particularly sensitive and dangerous Fallujah area?

It is true that the Patriot and C-RAM were rushed to Ain al-Asad after the base was hit by 11 Qiam-1 missiles on December 3, 2019. While there were no deaths, 110 US military personnel were wounded, mainly by severe concussions caused by blast shock waves.

However, it is also true that the army had to know that the C-RAM and Patriot might not be adequate – it had limited to zero capability against cruise missiles and drones, and probably no ability to deal with Katyushas. US intelligence would also have told the army that Iranian cruise missiles and drones were far more accurate than earlier thought and that the Katyushas had been improved with inertial navigation and GPS guidance systems.

But no urgent call went out to deploy the Iron Dome system. Even if the army did not want Iron Dome – which has never been adequately explained – the more important task was to protect the lives of US personnel deployed in Iraq.

Even harder to believe is that the Pentagon apparently intends to deploy Iron Dome in the Persian Gulf. So why is it that the army has refused to budge on deploying it to Iraq and maybe Afghanistan and Syria, where it is needed?

The answer seems to be that the army wants to protect its pet project, its Integrated Air and Missile Defense system. The army might also be worried that not only Iron Dome, but other Israeli systems – David’s Sling and Arrow II – would outperform the army’s deep attachment to the Patriot system. 

The Pentagon building in Washington, DC. Photo: AFP

Not Invented Here syndrome

It was not that long ago that the army scuttled US procurement of the US-European MEADS (Medium Extended Air Defense System) because the army wanted to protect Patriot.

It is not just about NIH (Not Invented Here) syndrome, which is very common in the Defense Department. While that surely was a factor, Raytheon and Rafael, the producers of Iron Dome, already have announced they are willing to build in a US factor for Iron Dome.

Congress has been badgering the army to deploy Iron Dome in Iraq, but the army is slow-rolling Capitol Hill and throwing up timelines and with it excuses for not deploying the system. As things now stand, the army is preparing to test Iron Dome and will eventually have parts of it in a shoot-off competition in the future.

But Iron Dome is the one air defense system that does not need testing. Unlike the C-RAM, which has never shot down anything, or that Patriot that has failed as many times as it has been successful, Iron Dome is a proven system. It would take only a few months at most to train US soldiers to operate Iron Dome, just as Israeli soldiers are trained to do so. The system is mobile, quick to set up and reliable.

It seems the old shuffle will go on without resolution and our troops will be left without any real protection in Iraq and elsewhere.

The army could have sent the Iron Dome to Iraq but did not. This is a true leadership blunder.