WASHINGTON ― Sen. John Boozman is pressing the Pentagon to upend its plans for Iron Dome and deploy one battery to the Middle East ― the latest sign of impatience on Capitol Hill with the Army’s fielding plans.
The Army is buying the Israeli-made system as a short-term fix while it develops its own program, the Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System, or IBCS, to counter cruise missiles, rockets and mortars. The Army has concluded that Iron Dome’s proprietary systems cannot be integrated with IBCS and that it will be treated as a stand-alone capability.
Army officials plan to field Iron Dome’s first two batteries in the U.S. at the end of the year, but it will take time to train troops on the systems before deployment. The batteries are produced through a partnership between Rafael and Raytheon, and they’re due to arrive this fall.
In a May 14 letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Boozman, R-Ark., said a February trip to Iraq convinced him that U.S. and coalition forces there need the protection right now from Iran and its proxies. There is also a local connection: Raytheon’s Camden, Arkansas, facility would produce the last portion of the system’s interceptor projectile, in partnership with Rafael.
Boozman, who serves as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies, wrote, “I strongly encourage consideration” that one of the systems be deployed to the U.S. Central Command theater.
“Over time, the Iron Dome system has proven its effectiveness to intercept a wide range of indirect and aerial threats, with a success rate of 90%,” Boozman’s letter said. “Iron Dome’s proven air defense capability solidifies why a deployment to the CENTCOM theater will enhance force protection posture in the region.”
That letter is the latest sign of Iron Dome’s support in Congress. Reps. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., and Grace Meng, D-N.Y., led a May 17 letter asking Esper to reexamine plans for the system. The letter highlighted rocket attacks on U.S. forces in an apparent push for the Army to reconsider a long-term role for Iron Dome in the IBCS.
On Tuesday, a rocket struck Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of Iraq’s government, early on Tuesday morning, according to an Iraqi military statement, the first attack on the area since a new prime minister was sworn in earlier this month.
The Associated Press reported on April 13 that a short-range rocket defense system was installed at Camp Taji, Iraq, and that Patriot missile launchers and two other short-range systems were emplaced at the military base in Irbil and at Ain al-Asad base, where Iran carried out a massive ballistic missile attack against U.S. and coalition troops in January.
Soon after Iran launched the attack on the Ain al-Asad base in January, questions were raised about the lack of air defense systems at bases in Iraq hosting America troops. But it took time to overcome tensions and negotiate with Iraqi leaders, and to also locate defense systems that could be shifted into Iraq. Prior to the missile attacks, U.S. military leaders did not believe the systems were needed there more than in other locations around the world, where such strikes are more frequent.
The Patriot batteries, which are designed to protect against missiles, are now at Ain al-Asad and Iribil. In addition, the Army’s counter-rocket, artillery, mortar system was being used. And the more sophisticated Avenger air defense system can counter low-flying missiles and aircraft, including drones and helicopters.
Amid tensions between the kingdom and the Trump administration over oil production, the U.S. launched plans to pull two Patriot missile batteries and some fighter aircraft out of Saudi Arabia. Two Patriot batteries would stay at Prince Sultan Air Base in the Saudi desert, along with a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense — an anti-ballistic missile defense system — and jet fighters. Two Patriot batteries in the Mideast would head home to the U.S. for maintenance and upgrades.
The Army has been on a circuitous path to fielding a future, all-encompassing system to defend against rockets, artillery and mortars as well as cruise missiles and unmanned aircraft systems. At the direction of Congress in the 2019 defense policy bill, the Army this year bought the two Iron Dome batteries to serve as an interim solution for cruise missile defense. (Army officials have questioned its ability to defend against sophisticated cruise missiles.)
“The larger strategic and operational questions to which Congress is looking for an answer aren’t just about a particular threat or Iron Dome, but rather address the diverse spectrum of air and missile threats,” said Tom Karako, a missile defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. “What exactly is the nation’s approach to rockets, cruise missiles and other forms of aerial attack? What’s the status of the U.S. programs designed to intercept these threats? And in what theaters is that capability most needed?”
Earlier this year, the Army notified Congress it plans to host a shoot-off in 2021 with vendors what would bring launcher and interceptor capabilities. The government intended to evaluate final proposals and choose one vendor to provide the launcher and interceptor solution in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2021 before it fields initial capabilities in fiscal 2023.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.