On Wednesday, January 8th, at 11pm, American and allied troops based at Ain al-Asad airbase in Iraq prepared for the inevitable.
With no adequate missile defence system in place and prior-warnings of incoming ballistic missiles confirmed, the soldiers crammed themselves into Saddam-era hardened bunkers. It was a scenario they “were ready for”, as one U.S. soldier stated, but not one they had readily expected. The U.S. military has long held a monopoly on deadly airborne precision threats. We need only think back through three decades of precision warfare to see how American forces, from the Gulf War through to modern drone conflicts, have targeted their enemy with lethal accuracy.
This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Dr James Rogers. Dr Rogers is DIAS Assistant Professor in War Studies, within the Centre for War Studies, at the University of Southern Denmark and Visiting Research Fellow at Stanford University. Twitter @DrJamesRogers.
On this occasion, however, it was a hostile actor, namely Iran, who was threatening certain destruction from the skies above and U.S. forces were vulnerable.
When the missiles began to fall, not everyone was safely tucked away. Some troops were left standing in watch-towers, keeping a look-out for advancing forces. Others were sat in armoured vehicles, ready to respond to incoming threats. A few were sat in their ground control stations, flying armed drones and keeping persistent overwatch. All were waiting, hoping not to be caught in the melee. At just after 1.30am, the first missiles hit. The doors to the bunkers shook and the drone pilot’s living quarters were absorbed by flames. As the vivid light trails in the sky turned into kinetic brute force impacts, cratering the base, those left out in the open scrambled for cover. By chance, if not sheer luck, no fatalities from the attack have been confirmed by the Pentagon. This is not to say that the strikes have had no lasting impact. It appears that at least 34 troops have suffered Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and for all those who lived through these attacks, the stark and present warning provided by Iran’s precision strike capacity is clear. As one American officer put it, “it’s a reminder, the threat still exists”.
A Blast from the Past
This threat is not new and should be far from surprising. Although the Iranian strikes were a wake-up call to the new levels of pin-point precision possessed by Iran, warnings about the proliferation of precision strike have been around since at least the 1980s. In January 1988, noted American defence intellectual, Albert Wohlstetter, and then U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Fred Iklé, released a long-anticipated report from The Commission on Integrated Long-term Strategy.
The report celebrated the revolutionary advent of American hi-tech, long-range, precision missile systems and lauded the American ability to harness “accurate smart conventional weapons” as a means to “inflict heavy losses on advancing forces” and “attack fixed targets at any range with accuracies within one to three meters”. Such a transformation would be known as a Discriminate Deterrence, highlighting to America’s enemies that the U.S. could now destroy with ease and precision from thousands of miles away. Nevertheless, not every aspect of the report gleamed with positivity. Wohlstetter and Iklé were far from blind to the troubling and potentially counterproductive consequences of long-distance precision.
Deep within their seminal report was a stark, important, yet often overlooked warning about what they called the “worldwide diffusion of advanced weapons”. With the spread of sophisticated and sizable arms industries, the author’s argued that hostile smaller states would soon have access to precision missiles of every size and range. As a consequence, military bases, forces, and the important national infrastructure of America and its allies would one day be threatened. As Iran’s strikes have highlighted, we have now reached this disquieting point in history.
Present Precision Threats
We know that Iran has been manufacturing both drone and precision missile technologies of varying degrees of sophistication and range for a number of decades. From the 1980s, Iran deployed Soviet Scud-B missiles, and through the 1990s the regime drew upon North Korean missile technologies and Chinese know-how to develop more precise and longer-range weapons. Although far from displaying advanced levels of accuracy, missiles such as the Shahab-3 became an integral part of the Iranian regime’s defence and deterrence posture. Nevertheless, much like the U.S., Iran realised that for its stance to be credible, it required the guarantee of destruction that only a much more precise missile could provide.
Iranian officials therefore focused on increasing the precision of their strike capability. As the Atlantic Council’s Saab and Elleman have argued, Iran spent “the past decade refocusing its missile development efforts away from increasing range to enhancing the precision and lethality of its missiles”. By 2017, Iran had much more advanced missile systems, such as the Qiam-1, that could strike with an accuracy of 10m to 100 m CEP over 700 km, as well as related drone technologies, like the Shahed-129, which could travel over 1,700 kilometres and fly for over 24 hours with a payload of 8 Iranian made Sadid-1 missiles. It is here that we turn our attentions to Major General Qassem Soleimani, the recently assassinated head of the IRGC’s Quds Force.
Soleimani’s demise triggered Iran’s attack on the Ain al-Asad airbase in Iraq on January 8th, and consequently his death has triggered intense media speculation about what happens next in the Middle East. Soleimani was important, in part because it was he who turned Iran into the world’s foremost proponent of offensive remote warfare. As the long-time commander of Iran’s Quds Forces (an organization within the IRGC described by Gen. Stanley McChrystal as being “roughly analogous to a combination of the CIA and JSOC in the United States”), Soleimani was charged with the establishment and support of proxy groups across the Middle East committed to the Iranian cause. Part of Soleimani’s modus operandi was to supply Iran’s ever more advanced precision strike capabilities to these actors, enabling them to strike enemy targets from distance and with a deadly deniability.
As a recent IISS report outlined, Soleimani specialised in the establishment of unconstrained logistics channels that could provide “advisers, funds, advanced ballistic-missile technology, armed uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAVs) and explosive remote-controlled boats” amongst other capabilities to proxy actors. No longer simply about deterring attack, these conflict defining weapons and resources allowed Iranian backed forces to offensively shift the momentum of military struggles towards Iran’s political favour. Indeed, with so many Iranian supported actors across the region, it became difficult for American and allied actors to attribute strikes and to respond politically or militarily in a timely and effective manner.
Soleimani’s reach was vast and impactful. We know that he projected Iranian power across all parts of the Middle East through his sophisticated network in Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen and beyond. In the latter case, it was through the Houthis; a particularly well-trained and well-resourced group that has been able to pose a direct threat to commercial shipping in the Bab El-Mandeb Strait (between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea) and major strategic targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Iranian supplied missiles, such as the Burkan 2-H medium-range ballistic missile and an increasingly advanced arsenal of armed drones, have brought Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai within range, allowing the Houthis to strike civilian and commercial targets, such as airports, power plants and oil facilities, or to conduct targeted assassinations.
Warnings for the Future.
These attacks highlight what Wohlstetter and Ikle warned; hostile actors have now gained access to short and medium range precision strike capabilities, allowing for distant, deniable, deadly pinpoint destruction of both military assets and allied civil targets. Iranian attempts to build a precision missile-based deterrence posture ultimately facilitated Qassem Soleimani’s ambition to supply these high-tech and once hard to perfect capabilities across the region, into the hands of pliable, belligerent non-state actors. He was the conductor in ensuring this network had the resources, military hardware and technical capability to target Iran’s regional rivals, whilst maintaining the luxury of deniability. As policymakers grapple with what may happen next in the region, it is important to note that these capabilities will not, and have not, disappeared with Soleimani.
Recent inspections of captured Houthi weaponry indicate that smuggling routes providing them with ever more sophisticated commercial elements remain as robust as ever. Powerful European manufactured petrol motors, commercial transmitters, 4K HD cameras, thermal imaging cameras, and Chinese made wiring, mixed with industrial quality wing-flaps, slats, and connectors now allow Houthi missiles and drones to fly further, faster, and in a more reliable and deadly fashion. Therefore, although links with Iran will likely continue, the Houthis, and other non-state groups, have learnt from their experience and will be able to continue Soleimani’s plan for long-distance, remote destruction long into the future.