Iran attacked U.S. forces stationed at two bases in Iraq with 15 missiles on Tuesday, but it does not appear missile defense systems deployed to the Middle East last year were used to counter them.
The United States sent Patriot missile defense systems to the Persian Gulf region last year in response to Iranian threats to shipping and Saudi Arabian oil fields. Ten missiles landed last night at al Asad air base in Iraq’s western Anbar province, while five targeted a base in Erbil, Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region in the country’s north. The Pentagon declined to say whether the Patriot was used or if the missiles were intercepted.
“The Department of Defense is not offering anything beyond the statement released last night,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Thomas Campbell told the WashingtonExaminer.
There are no indications that any of the missiles were intercepted, though it is believed four of the five missiles failed to hit the Erbil base due to technical failures. A U.S. military source on the ground told the Washington Examiner’s Susan Katz Keating that at least one did not explode, providing pictures of the wreckage.
“They were duds,” the source said.
[ Read more: 'Unexpected and chaotic': Inside Erbil air base during Iranian missile attack]
Thomas Karako, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Missile Defense Project, said that it’s difficult to speculate as to why the Patriot system wasn’t used during the strike but noted the system is a great missile defense weapon.
“It’s also a high-demand asset. There’s lots of other bases and facilities in the region that they’re located in and that we want to defend. So they can’t be everywhere at once.”
They are in such high demand that U.S. partners and allies in the Middle East have scrambled to acquire Patriot and other missile defense systems of their own in recent years in an apparent effort to defend against Iran’s massive missile arsenal. Most recently, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia deployed Patriot batteries near Yemen in order to protect their troops from missile attacks by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
Patriot radar systems can track more than 100 targets at a range of slightly more than 60 miles, but it’s interceptor missiles have a range of only 13 miles. For this reason, the Patriot is often used to defend specific facilities or areas in a layered set comprising multiple units. It can take out ballistic and cruise missiles, and it became famous for defending against Saddam Hussein’s missiles during the 1991 Gulf War.
“You want to have your missile defense interceptor system stations close to the area you are defending,” Eric Gomez, a missile defense policy analyst at the Cato Institute, told the Washington Examiner. “And from the reporting I’ve seen about last night, it doesn’t appear that the U.S. had a Patriot battery actually stationed at either of these bases.”
American forces were not left without defense, though. In an address following the strike on Wednesday, President Trump noted the U.S. avoided casualties thanks to some key defensive measures.
“No American or Iraqi lives were lost because of the precautions taken, the dispersal of forces, and an early warning system that worked very well,” Trump said. “I salute the incredible skill and courage of America’s men and women in uniform.”
Gomez explained that the U.S. has several warning options that could have provided a heads up for troops, including a space-based infrared warning system that detects the plume of a burning missile and a radar site known as TPY-2 based in southern Turkey. He said the U.S. also could have been tipped off by a human source of some kind.
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