U.S. troops in Iraq were once again in the line of fire last week without sufficient capability to defend themselves. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, confirmed on Friday that U.S. troops at Camp Taji, Iraq, did not have a necessary system to intercept rockets during the March 11 attack by an Iran-backed militia that killed three coalition service members.
This fact highlights the clear vulnerability of deployed U.S. troops in Iraq to indirect fire. It also underscores the need to both deploy, without delay, existing defense capabilities and to expeditiously develop the next generation of indirect fire protection capability, or IFPC.
According to Gen. McKenzie, Kata’ib Hezbollah — an Iran-backed Shiite militia also known as KH that operates in both Iraq and Syria — attempted to launch 33 rockets at U.S. troops at Camp Taji last week. After three misfired, 30 were launched with roughly a third to half of them landing in Camp Taji — killing an American soldier and airman, as well as a British medic. McKenzie called the attack by the Iranian proxy a “large strike” with the “intent to produce a lot of casualties.”
To deter future attacks, the next day the U.S. struck five KH locations that McKenzie called “advanced conventional weapons storage units.” CENTCOM believes the facilities and any weapons they contained were “effectively destroyed.”
KH was placed on the U.S. State Department’s foreign terrorist organization list in 2009, making it the first Iran-backed Shiite militia in Iraq to be designated as an FTO. Both the organization and its leader are subject to U.S. terrorism sanctions.
During Friday’s press conference, McKenzie acknowledged that there was no counter-rocket, artillery, mortar system in place at Camp Taji to protect U.S. troops. McKenzie noted that the C-RAM system often focuses on protecting Patriot missile defense batteries from close-in threats, but acknowledged that C-RAM systems can also protect personnel from the kind of 107mm rockets used by KH.
Due to an insufficient supply of such systems, however, U.S. troops are deployed around the world in dangerous locations without such protection. In these instances, U.S. military personnel rely on advance warning of incoming fire to scramble to bunkers or other protective shelters. The fact that the demand for such systems exceeds supply requires the Pentagon and combatant commands to deploy them to the areas in most need of protection.
This broader dilemma was on display more than two months ago when Tehran launched a ballistic missile attack at U.S. troops on two different Iraqi bases. Instead of rockets, Tehran fired 16 short-range ballistic missiles in the Jan. 8 attack. Thankfully no Americans were killed, but dozens sustained injuries.
The Pentagon had decided to deploy its finite inventory of Patriot missile defense batteries to other locations deemed a higher priority. Consequently, U.S. military forces in Iraq lacked the means to intercept ballistic missiles.
Patriots can intercept ballistic missiles, but they cannot intercept 107mm rockets like C-RAM systems can. Nonetheless, McKenzie confirmed that the Pentagon is moving Patriots into Iraq, likely to be accompanied by C-RAM systems. But McKenzie hastened to add that it would be “some days” before those systems are in position and operational.
The belated decision to deploy Patriots to Iraq suggests that CENTCOM believes additional Iranian ballistic missile attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq are possible. Rocket attacks by Iran’s proxies are certainly continuing. Indeed, American troops at Camp Taji suffered another rocket attack on March 13, with three service members sustaining injuries.
These threats demonstrate the importance of the Army’s efforts to develop and field a new generation of IFPC. Army Futures Command says the new system will defend against rockets, artillery and mortars, as well as subsonic cruise missiles and many types of unmanned aerial systems.
The Army seeks a system that can provide “360-degree protection of critical fixed and semi-fixed assets” by engaging these threats simultaneously, according to Army Futures Command. The Army plans to have a “shoot-off” for the new systems in the third quarter of fiscal 2021, followed by vendor selection in the fourth quarter of FY21. If all goes well, the Army hopes to field an initial capability by the fourth quarter of FY23.
In the meantime, U.S. troops in Iraq cannot wait. If Washington is going to ask U.S. service members to deploy in harm’s way in Iraq or anywhere else, the Pentagon must ensure they have sufficient means to defend themselves. Given the persistent threat from Iran and its terrorist proxies, the deployment of Patriots and C-RAM systems to Iraq would represent a step in the right direction.
Bradley Bowman is the senior director for the Center on Military and Political Power with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow.