May 23, 2020 | Real Clear Defense

U.S. Troops Are Vulnerable. Israeli Technologies Can Help

May 23, 2020 | Real Clear Defense

U.S. Troops Are Vulnerable. Israeli Technologies Can Help

The recent U.S. decision to withdraw two Patriot missile defense batteries from Saudi Arabia has again highlighted how vulnerable U.S. interests in the Middle East remain to Iran’s growing arsenal of short- to medium-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, unmanned aerial systems (UAS), and rockets. Repeatedly over the last year, Iran and its regional proxies have used these weapons to attack U.S. personnel and partners in the Persian Gulf, inflicting significant damage on lives and property while exposing dangerous gaps in current American defense capabilities. Finding fast and practical solutions to fill those gaps should be an urgent U.S. priority. Battle-proven Israeli technology could be of significant help.

On March 10, the commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), General Frank McKenzie, testified that Iran’s inventory of 2,500 to 3,000 ballistic missiles constituted the primary threat faced by the United States and its allies in the Middle East. Though McKenzie provided no breakdown of Iran’s missile arsenal, he indicated that most fall into the category of shorter-range systems.

On April 22, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) successfully launched a very small (6U CubeSat, weighing about 30 pounds) military satellite into space using a 3-stage rocket – marking potentially important progress in its efforts to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of striking the United States. While requiring careful monitoring and planning, however, Iran likely remains years away from an ICBM capability. When it comes to spending America’s limited missile-defense resources, the priority against Iran should clearly remain on defeating the full spectrum of short- to mid-range threats that are capable of wreaking havoc on U.S. interests today.

The immediate danger comes not from Iranian weapons with ranges over 3,000 miles, but from those that operate under 1,500 miles. Indeed, within days of its satellite launch, Iran’s regular Army announced that it had added three new types of combat drones to its arsenal, while the IRGC claimed that it was preparing to deploy an updated “Fotros” long-range attack drone, capable of flying for 30 hours with a range of 1,250 miles, threatening Israel, U.S. forces across the Gulf region, and parts of Europe as well.

The two Patriot systems being withdrawn from Saudi Arabia had been protecting the country’s critical energy infrastructure. They were deployed on an emergency basis last fall after more than 20 low-flying Iranian drones and cruise missiles conducted an unprecedented precision strike against two of the kingdom’s most important oil facilities, temporarily knocking out 5 percent of the world’s supply of crude. With the withdrawal of the U.S. batteries (allegedly for maintenance and redeployment to Asia), those installations are potentially once again acutely vulnerable. For reasons not entirely clear, Saudi Arabia’s own extensive air defense capabilities, including multiple Patriots, proved woefully ineffective in the face of Iran’s surprise attack last September.

The threat to the United States from Iran’s short-range weapons is even more directly apparent in Iraq. Since May 2019, Iranian-backed militias have launched more than 40 rocket attacks against U.S. military, diplomatic and commercial targets, resulting in the deaths of an American contractor, two U.S. troops, and a British soldier. On January 8, just days after a U.S. drone strike killed Iran’s top general, the terrorist mastermind and IRGC paramilitary leader Qassem Soleimani, Iran itself conducted an unprecedented direct attack on the U.S. military, launching at least 16 short-range missiles at two Iraqi bases hosting U.S. troops, scoring several near-direct hits, including on housing barracks. Though there were no fatalities (thanks to a combination of advanced warning and sheer luck), more than 100 U.S. soldiers suffered traumatic brain injuries.

One of the most disconcerting aspects of the Iraq attacks has been the seeming absence of any active U.S. defenses. Despite the sustained severity of the Iranian-backed threat, it was only in late March 2020 that Patriots were finally sent to Iraq to protect the two bases where the majority of U.S. forces have consolidated in recent months – at least in part due to force protection concerns. Up until that point, the limited number of available Patriots in the U.S. arsenal had been deployed at high-priority targets elsewhere in the Middle East and around the world, including the Saudi oil facilities. As a result, until very recently, the only real option available to U.S. personnel in Iraq who received warning of incoming missiles or rockets was to take cover and pray that their positions did not suffer a direct hit.

Unfortunately, even the deployment of Patriots is, at best, a partial solution to the Iranian threat. Designed for taking out high-flying planes and ballistic missiles, the Patriots – with Patriot Advanced Capability-3 Missile Segment Enhancement (PAC-3 MSE) missiles – would no doubt have been well-suited for neutralizing Iran’s January 8 ballistic missile attack. But they are far less capable against the other elements of the Iranian short to mid-range arsenal, in particular rockets, drones, and cruise missiles.

How well Patriots would have fared against the ground-hugging drones that struck the Saudi oil processing facility at Abqaiq last September, much less the Katyusha rockets that actually pose the greatest threat to U.S. personnel in Iraq, is very much in doubt. Indeed, in the wake of the Abqaiq attack, the Pentagon’s third highest ranking official admitted publicly that the United States and its NATO allies were not ready to defend against the sort of swarming drones and cruise missiles used in the Saudi attack, calling it a “serious problem.”

A better short-term solution would ideally supplement Patriots with a mixture of two existing Israeli air-defense systems. The first and most urgent is Iron Dome, developed by the Israeli company Rafael, and now co-produced with the American defense firm Raytheon. Since Iron Dome was first deployed in 2011, the United States has provided more than $1.5 billion to support its production for the Israel Defense Forces. To date, Iron Dome has successfully intercepted more than 2,000 short-range rockets fired at Israel’s population centers, mostly coming from Hamas in Gaza – a similar threat to the one that U.S. personnel currently face from Iranian-backed militias in Iraq. Iron Dome’s interception rate is close to 90 percent, making it by an order of magnitude the most battle-tested and successful missile defense system in the world.

Though Iron Dome is advertised as being able to defeat drones and cruise missiles as well, its track record with regard to those threats is far less established. Nevertheless, when Congress in 2018 recognized that the United States faced a dangerous gap in defending against cruise missiles, and mandated that the Army field an interim solution by 2020, the Army opted to purchase two Israeli Iron Dome batteries over other competitors. Recent improvements have reportedly further enhanced the system’s effectiveness against both cruise missiles and drones.

Even Army officials skeptical of whether Iron Dome can be part of the long-term solution to the cruise missile threat that the U.S. hopes to develop by 2024 have acknowledged Iron Dome’s success. The system has “demonstrated the ability to deal with some cruise missiles” (though not all), said the Army’s acquisition chief, Bruce Jette. Iron Dome, said Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, “brings more capability [against cruise missiles] than we have in our missile defense today” – i.e., more than Patriots.

The second Israeli technology that the U.S. should give serious consideration to is the Skyceptor missile from Rafael and Raytheon. Based on the Stunner interceptor developed for Israel’s David’s Sling missile-defense system, Skyceptor can be fired from Patriots and was specifically designed to intercept not only ballistic missiles but also low altitude, maneuverable cruise missiles and drones as well. The United States has provided nearly $2 billion to support David’s Sling. Though operational in Israel since 2017, it has yet to accumulate the battlefield experience of Iron Dome. Critically, however, Skyceptor costs less than half the price of the PAC-3 MSE missile.

The issue of affordability strongly reinforces the argument for incorporating Israeli systems into America’s defense architecture against Iran. At the upper end, each Iron Dome interceptor missile (known as Tamir) costs at most $200,000. Each Skyceptor is around $2 million. The PAC-3 MSE, by contrast, can approach $6 million per missile. A crude calculation based on the Iranian attack against the Saudi oil facilities underscores the Israeli value proposition. Assuming one interceptor was used to defeat each of the approximately 25 drones and cruise missiles that Iran fired, Iron Dome would have cost $5 million, Skyceptor approximately $50 million, and the PAC-3 MSE upwards of $150 million.

Especially in the wake of the deadly rocket attacks in Iraq, Congress has pressed the Pentagon to accelerate its deployment plans for the two Iron Dome batteries already contracted for. For its part, the Army has expressed deep skepticism about investing further resources in Iron Dome based on an assessment that the system is likely not compatible with its comprehensive, long-term missile defense architecture, known as the Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System (IBCS).

In a recent interview, the head of Army Futures Command, General Mike Murray, said, “it would be … exceptionally difficult to integrate Iron Dome into our layered air defense architecture [and] to get Iron Dome to talk to other systems, other radars.” In that case, Murray concluded, “What you’re probably – almost certainly – going to see is two standalone [Iron Dome] systems, and if the best we can do is standalone systems, we do not want to buy another two batteries.”

The Army has still allowed elements of the Iron Dome system, including the Tamir interceptor, to compete in a “shoot off” to be held in the spring of 2021 for a chance to become part of its next-generation Indirect Fire Protection Capability (IFPC), which hopes to use multiple types of missiles, lasers, high-powered microwaves, and other technologies to deal with every conceivable mid- to short-range threat, from rockets to small drones to supersonic cruise missiles. All competitors will need to prove that their missile can “talk” to IBCS and be fully compatible with the Army’s overarching missile defense vision. Given the urgent need to enhance the protection of U.S. forces as soon as possible, the Army should also require proof that systems participating in the shoot-off can be fielded quickly, in less than a year’s time.

Whether or not Iron Dome would be as difficult to integrate as the Army has suggested is subject to significant dispute. Some experts strongly argue that the ability to connect Iron Dome to U.S. systems through an interface is an eminently solvable technological problem, one that doesn’t require Iron Dome’s manufacturer to hand over the system’s so-called source code – its most sensitive and commercially valuable proprietary information – as some reports claim the Army has demanded.

Though by no means dispositive, the fact that the U.S. Marine Corps has conducted successful tests to integrate Iron Dome missiles with Marine radars lends credence to the idea that making Iron Dome talk to U.S. systems is by no means an insurmountable challenge. Further evidence is provided by the excellent connection that Israel’s longer-range Arrow system has demonstrated with its American counterparts using the Link 16 military data link network.

Even if the Army is right about Iron Dome’s incompatibility with its long-term vision for an all-in-one missile-defense solution, the fact remains that the lives of U.S. troops and diplomats in Iraq today are under immediate threat from the type of rockets for which Iron Dome is almost certainly the most effective and affordable answer available. They shouldn’t have to wait years until the IFPC finally becomes operational when a short-term solution could be deployed almost immediately that would dramatically enhance their protection.

That’s precisely the point that Congressman Doug Lamborn (R-CO) made about Iron Dome during a hearing in March, just days after a militia rocket barrage killed two U.S troops and a British soldier in Iraq. “I don’t want to see the perfect be the enemy of the good. I don’t want to see a perfect, hoped for, and expected capability deter us from using something that is available and usable right now – and will save lives.”

Having sent its personnel into harm’s way, the highest U.S. obligation should be finding fast, effective and affordable responses to defeat the threats that they face in the next few months – not just developing the ultimate solutions that may not be ready to deploy for the next five to ten years. As part of that effort, the Army should prioritize getting the two Iron Dome batteries it has already purchased onto the battlefield as soon as possible, while remaining open to acquiring more should they prove to have the same kind of game-changing strategic effects in Iraq as they have already had in Israel.

Brigadier General (Res.) Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a visiting professor at the Technion Faculty of Aerospace Engineering. He previously served as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s acting national security advisor and head of Israel’s National Security Council. He was also the former deputy director of the Israeli Ministry of Defense’s Directorate of Defense Research and Development. John Hannah is senior counselor at FDD and a former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney. FDD is a nonpartisan policy institute focused on national security. 

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