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.

Image result for Qiam-1
Qiam-1 missile.

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.

Proliferated Precision

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.

Image result for Burkan 2-H medium-range ballistic missile
Burkan 2-H medium-range ballistic missile

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.

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The final paragraph suggests that some of the more advanced non-state actors may actually be developing the ability to put together more sophisticated capabilities, such as Radio Controlled drones (air or sea) from parts supplied by Iran (and others). If this is the case, and I see no reason to doubt it, then things will only continue to destablise globally. Defending our homeland and vital interests is going to be come militarily and politically farm more challenging, especially as the movement of people is only likely to get worse in the face of increasing economic disparity and climate change. Not… Read more »


The only country really doing anything about it is Israel. But being surrounded by groups who wish for your extermination. kind of prioritises the mind. Unfortunately, for the UK and the rest of Europe it will require a major incident to get them off their politically torpid arses. Israel has developed David’s Sling and Iron Dome to counter ballistic missiles and unguided rockets. Both systems are now combat proven with a better than 90% success rate. However, this should be taken in context, as the ballistic missile defence has only been used on single ballistic missiles not a mass of… Read more »


One thing that rarely gets mentioned is dependence on satellite links. The Iranian’s are not going to be able to fly drones very far without those links or line of sight comms. Without a military comm sat constellation the ability of other nations to do this is restricted. They may be using commercial satellite capacity in peacetime, but in wartime that won’t be there.

Of course AI will change everything..


Remote boat attacks have used mobile phones doing skype/ facetime video links to allow the operator to see and then steer the boat to the target.
OK you need to be within 3g/4g coverage but the operator can be hundreds of miles away as long as there is a mobile phone signal.

You don’t need a sat data link.


Not being funny but don’t bases have any AA capacities? Do forward bases not have anything like phalanx?
Granted the bullets that miss still have to land somewhere. But still… warships have anti aircraft missiles, gun systems and jamming technology etc.
What protects the bases from air attack? Wouldn’t that have the perfect opportunity to test the AA capacities?
Or is it cheaper to let the missiles hit and rebuild the barracks instead of launching expensive counter missiles?
Can someone enlighten me?
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Steve R

I think it’s more that it’s all been tailored towards fighting enemies on the ground; there hasn’t been a threat to US or coalition forces in Iraq from the air since 1991, so those precautions were likely not taken.


Thanks Steve R!
While that makes sense, isn’t it better to err on the side of caution though?
Personally, I’d rather have a SAM launcher and not need it, than need it and not have one. It’s not as if the US don’t have any spare right?
Adversaries play off against each others weaknesses and I think it was blind luck that no-one was killed.

Steve R

It would make perfect sense, yes.

I think it’s kind of a microcosm for how our armed forces and defence policy have become; focused on fighting the war on terror. Policiticans last decade believing that war against other states was the past and it would all be against terrorists or insurgents. This is shown in how we are lacking in some key areas such as anti ship missiles etc.


The US military needs Iraqi Govt permission to base Patriot inside Iraqi and they didn’t have it so the base protection plan was essentially duck and cover.


NATO should pull out all their SAM systems they have protecting Turkey and send them to protect the Allied bases in Iraq. Why NATO countries are still protecting Turkey is a mystery to me.


probably because Turkey is still a member of NATO. There may be a difference between “protecting” and “basing”. If NATO pulls equipment and people out of Turkey, 2 things could happen: 1. Push the Turks further to “non-western” influences, 2. An incident with Greece possibly becomes more likely…..and oh yes, don’t forget the millions of refugees which may be encouraged to chance it and head to Greece (and Europe.) All in all a difficult situation to manage.


I can’t help thinking we should be investing in a lot more land captor / starsteak units. Plus maybe some more phalanx so they don’t have to be pulled off shops to protect based.


Does starsteak come with French fries?


Joy of typing on phone. Starstreak and ships not shops

Steve R

Definitely. Also for longer range, perhaps a land-based version of Aster 30?


Like EuroSAM SAM/T?


I think the initial focus should be on affordable short range options to protect bases against this emerging threat from non-peer opposition. Longer range is required but is only useful currently against pier opposition and likely fighters are better intercepting.

Barry Larking

Lacking here in this interesting and thought article is the political dimension. Like a James Bond film, the baddies never have anything like a feasible objective to explain their aggression beyond world domination and love for exotic weapons and dastardly over complex schemes for their use. Why do we fight? Indeed. One of the reasons the west’s, especially America’s, attempts to mange world tensions (real or imagined) has been the dominance of 1945. There the allies drove onto their enemies lands and defeated them in whole and in detail. In my view too few seem to recognise how completely exceptional… Read more »

Barry Larking

Oh, please can we have an edit button Mods? ‘thoughtful’ and ‘manage’!