Vulnerabilities in U.S. Air Defenses in Iraq and Syria

The escalating threat from Iran poses a formidable challenge to US air defenses in Iraq and Syria, as they strive to safeguard American troops amidst the anticipation of more substantial and frequent attacks.

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Coyote firing a small air-breathing air defense missile

Forbes has produced an excellent report on keeping US troops in Iraq and Syria.  The bottom line, despite appearances to the contrary, the US isn’t leaving either place anytime soon.  If true, what about protecting our troops better than we are doing?

US troops stationed at locations in Iraq (al-Assad and Erbil) and in northern Syria (RLZ base and al-Tanf in the Homs Governate) have been subjected to frequent attacks of drones, cruise missiles, rockets and ballistic missiles.  Dozens of US soldiers have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and, unfortunately, many have been returned to duty anyway.

US soldiers are not football players.  They don’t get millions of dollars pay, and the testing system for TBI is flawed.  There are around 2,500 US soldiers in Iraq and another 900 in Syria.

The US Army uses a test called the Military Acute Concussion Evaluation 2, or MACE-2.  It is used to “identify symptoms of a mild traumatic brain injury at the point of care.” 

MACE-2 looks for red flags including;

  • worsening level of consciousness 
  • double vision or loss of vis​ion 
  • restlessness, combative or agitated behavior 
  • repeated vomiting
  • seizures 
  • weakness or tingling in the arms or legs 
  • severe or worsening headache ​

The problem with brain injury is that either it is not detected at all or, if it is, if the symptoms ease up, there is no follow up.  The case of the pro-football Hall of Fame player Junior Seau is an example of what happens when there are repetitive head injuries.  In post-mortem examinations (Seau killed himself with a gunshot wound to the chest in 2012) a much more grievous form of brain damage was found called chronic traumatic encephalopathy.  CTE is caused by repeated head injuries, the sort you see often among football players in the United States.

MACE-2 as a screening tool only and shows red flags as noted above.  If those symptoms are not present, or if they rapidly clear up, the soldier is returned to duty.

This is the testing system in use today in Iraq and Syria.

The problem at these US bases is they are being repeatedly attacked by pro-Iranian Shia terrorist groups operating in Iraq and Syria.  The latest statistics show that US bases have been attacked 143 times since October 7th (the time of the attack on Israel by Hamas), and many times before that.

Most of the reported injuries are from the concussive effects of pro-Iranian missiles and drones.

The al-Assad air base in Iraq is located about 160 km (100 miles) west of Baghdad in Al Anbar Governorate, a Sunni dominated area.  The US is a tenant at the base which is run by Iraq’s army.  To protect US troops the United States installed a Patriot air defense system last year.  It also has a C-RAM gun system.

According to news reports, the Iranian backed militants fired 15 ballistic missiles and rockets at the base on January 20, 2024.  Official reports say that 13 of them were shot down, principally by the Patriot, but two hit the base. “A number of US personnel” were injured, although neither the Pentagon nor CENTCOM has told us the actual total.

The Patriot system is capable of shooting down ballistic missiles if it is not overwhelmed.  It has been actively doing so for some time, in Saudi Arabia, UAE, previously in Israel, and in Ukraine.  There are many different models of Patriot, typically separated by two designations, PAC-2 and PAC-3, but as Patriot systems are continually modified and upgraded, and different types of interceptor missiles are used, it is difficult to say what system did what unless detailed information is available, which in most cases is not.

Even though it is a modern air defense system, there have been flaws in its performance.  One of them is that not all interceptor missiles fired function properly.  There are a number of such incidents reported in Ukraine where a Patriot missile crashed and caused casualties or damage or both.  A second problem is that operators react to one threat, which might be a decoy, and miss a bigger threat because they have shot off their ammunition.  A third, and even more serious issue is that in many cases the Patriot hits its target, a missile, but misses the missile’s warhead which has separated from the body of the rocket.  Not all missiles have this feature: but some Iranian missiles do, and some of these are known to have been supplied to the Houthis.  Finally, most of the observed intercepts happen very close to their targets –that is, you can easily see the intercept overhead on its terminal path.  A last-resort intercept is not ideal for many reasons.

In any case, at Erbil in the Kurdish part of Iraq, and at US Syrian bases, there are no Patriots.  The US Congress passed legislation incorporated into the National Defense Authorization Act, obliging the Defense Department to come up with a plan to equip  Iraqi security forces and Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Erbil with air defenses by “February 1st, 2024”  and to actually deploy air defenses there within 90 days after February 1st.  If the plan is actually produced and implemented, which means being funded, nothing could be done before next June at the very earliest.  The real bottom line is that nothing is going to be done, especially where the Biden administration is not too interested in protecting Erbil or other Kurdish-led areas, including in Syria.  The evidence is the long stay of US forces in Iraq and Syria and the lack of implementation of air defenses in Kurdish areas.

In Syria the State Department is floating an idea, as Forbes reports, that some sort of defense agreement can be made between Syrian Kurdish forces and the Syrian government. This is a non-starter for a host of reasons, including Syria’s opposition to an autonomous Syrian Kurdish entity.  The Russians actually tried to negotiate just such an arrangement with Syria and were rebuffed.

In Syria the US RLZ base at Hasaka is equipped with an Avenger Air Defense system.  This is a truck mounted launcher for Stinger missiles.  Stinger was not designed to deal with ballistic missiles, and probably would have problems hitting a cruise missile, which are turbine powered.  It does not have its own radar, but radar tracks from other sources can be fed into Avenger.  Avenger systems have allegedly also been supplied to Kurdish forces.  If an attack is launched at night, the Avenger shooters have to rely on their eyes to detect an incoming threat.  Stinger uses an infrared sensor (IR), meaning it will have difficulty locating drones with small model airplane engines, or finding electric powered drones that have no IR signature.  The latest Stinger version combines an ultraviolet sensor alongside IR to try and overcome some of this problem.

The US has put the Coyote Air Defense weapon at al-Tanf and it seems to have some success against drones.

Aside from the Patriot and Avenger, probably also stand-alone Stinger MANPADS, the US has the C-RAM (Counter rocket, artillery, and mortarrapid fire gun system.  C-RAM fires hundreds of rounds at a single target (typically around 300 per target).  C-RAM is at the al-Assad base and is also used around the Green Zone in Baghdad where the US Embassy is located and which has been attacked mainly by short range rockets.  C-RAM is a last resort system and is based on the Navy’s Phalanx gun system.

The US is in bad shape on an adequate air defense capability.  It has the new NASAMs system (developed by Norway and the US) which fires AMRAAM air to air missiles adapted for ground use.  It is said to be installed to protect the White House.  It is in use in Ukraine.  AMRAAM is not suited to engage ballistic missiles.  The US Army and US Marines are, separately, working on a new generation of air defense systems, but it will be some time before they are fully developed, tested and deployed. Meanwhile the US is short on Patriot missiles, and when it does have them, Ukraine is gobbling them up.

The US also has two Israeli-US Iron Dome systems, both of which the Army has been trying to trash.  These could be used to protect US troops in Iraq and, perhaps, Syria although Israel might fear a transfer to Syria and block it.  Iron Dome is a proven system and its interceptor Tamir missiles and command system is being used by the US Marines for their medium range tactical air defense system.  One existing Iron Dome system could help defend Erbil and the other could help strengthen defenses in al-Assad.  Yet the army has preferred to reject the use of the Israeli-US Iron Dome, leaving US troops at great risk.  Deploying the available Iron Dome system would let the Patriot system concentrate on ballistic missile threats and, in the process, save some lives.

Another alternative is for the US to shift its deployment from al-Assad and deploy the air defense equipment there instead. This would meet the Congressional requirement of providing air defenses (although this time they would be solely in US hands). The Patriot and C-ram could move, and in addition one of two Iron Dome units could be deployed there too. We need to keep in mind that the recent attacks on Erbil were carried out by the Iranian Guards and the ballistic missiles were fired from Iran. Erbil needs defenses urgently and by rearranging our deployment we would be in a much stronger position to help.

There is no good solution for Syria unless Israel will allow Iron Dome there. Given the dangers in the Syrian deployment, it would be better to help the Kurds as best we can and keep our presence diffused to reduce the likelihood the enemy can easily target our troops.

All in all, the suggested redeployment would remove an easy target at al-Assad for Iran-backed Shia groups. It would reinforce Erbil and support US interests without evacuating Iraq.

Stephen Bryen

Stephen Bryen is a former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense and is a leading expert in security strategy and technology. Bryen writes for Asia Times, American Thinker, Epoch Times, Newsweek, Washington Times, the Jewish Policy Center and others.

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