On Sunday, Iraq’s Security Media Cell said that two drones were intercepted by air defenses at al-Asad air base.
US forces in Iraq face increasing drone threats linked to Iran. This has been known for months since drones first began appearing among pro-Iranian militias in Iraq.
Initially used by Kataib Hezbollah and other pro-Iranian groups in Iraq to threaten Saudi Arabia, they have now been turned on the US.
Two drones were intercepted by air-defense systems at al-Asad Airbase, Iraq’s Security Media Cell, which releases information regarding Iraqi security, reported Sunday. On May 8, a drone targeted the same base, allegedly flown by pro-Iran militias targeting US forces.
In April, a drone attack targeted a secret CIA hangar in Erbil at the international airport, which is inside the sprawling coalition base. The full details of the attack were only revealed later in a report by The Washington Post.
Iran also used drones to target Kurdish dissidents in Koya in Iraq in 2018.
Now, the militias are turning their drones on US forces. This is after two years in which the militias used 107-mm. and 122-mm. rockets to target US facilities.
Initially, these attacks targeted the numerous facilities that the US had at places such as Q-West, K-1 and other Iraqi bases used for the fight against ISIS. After US retaliatory airstrikes and increasing calls for the US to leave Iraq, the US consolidated forces at al-Asad Airbase, Baghdad and Erbil. Iran then turned its attention to those sites.
The pro-Iran militias in Iraq are part of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), or Hashd al-Shaabi, an official paramilitary force. These groups have threatened the Iraqi prime minister, killed protesters and behave like an Iraqi version of Iran’s IRGC.
They are linked to Hezbollah in Lebanon, too, and they have threatened Israel in recent years.
In 2018 and 2019, Iran sent them ballistic missiles. In late May, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said an Iranian drone that flew into Israeli air space and was shot down near Beit She’an came from Iraq or Syria. The Iraq connection raises questions about militia involvement.Not much is known about the US air defenses at al-Asad. The US has C-RAM and Patriot systems, but there may be other air defenses there too.
US and partner forces have practiced jamming and other technologies to stop drone attacks. In July 2019, US marines on the USS Boxer used a special jamming kit, called a MADIS system, on an MRZR combat vehicle to take down an Iranian drone.
The New York Times reported over the weekend about the rising Iran drone threat.
“Michael P. Mulroy, a former CIA officer and top Middle East policy official at the Pentagon, said that with technology provided by Iran’s Quds Force – the foreign-facing arm of Iran’s security apparatus – the drones are rapidly becoming more sophisticated at a relatively low cost,” the report said. “‘The drones are a big deal, one of the most significant threats our troops there face,’ he said.”
Iraqis also warned of the threat, according to the Times. A senior Iraqi national security official said the drones posed a challenge but were tools, not the heart of the problem.
“At least three times in the past two months, those militias have used small, explosive-laden drones that dive-bomb and crash into their targets in late-night attacks on Iraqi bases – including those used by the CIA and US Special Operations units, according to American officials,” the report said. These include the April 14 attack on the CIA in Erbil, it said.
On May 8, the attack on the Asad base, “where the United States also operates Reaper drones… also raised concerns among American commanders about militias’ shifting tactics. The attack caused no injuries but damaged an aircraft hangar, according to Col. Wayne Marotto, a spokesman for the US-led coalition in Iraq,” the report said.
On May 11, “another drone struck just after midnight at an airfield in Harir, north of Erbil, that is used by the military’s highly secretive Joint Special Operations Command,” the Times reported. “The explosive-laden drone crashed, causing no injuries or damage, coalition officials said, but fueled the growing worries.”
The attack on Sunday was the fourth strike. Tehran has boasted about its drone capabilities in recent years. Iranian drone operations date from the 1980s, when Iran used drones in the war with Iraq. Its Ababil and Mohajer series have been around for decades.
However, more Iranian drones of the Shahed and other series that are more sophisticated have appeared in recent years. Iran says it can now arm them with missiles. More dangerous are the kamikaze drones, based on an Ababil model, which Iran exported to the Houthis in Yemen as the Qasef and to Hamas as the Shahed.
Not all the details are known about the latest attack or the previous three. Several years ago, the US established the Iran Material Display at Joint Base Anacostia Bolling, which locals call the “petting zoo.”
It houses Iranian drones, such as what the display says is a Shahed 123. There are parts of other Houthi drones that are based on Iranian models too.