Here’s Why Patriot Missiles Weren’t Protecting US Troops In Iraq And Why They Still Aren’t

Iraq is holding up the plan, but it’s also hard to understand how the US military didn’t fix this defensive gap earlier given the known threats.

byJoseph Trevithick|
Iraq photo


The U.S. military wants to send Patriot surface-to-air missile units to Iraq in the wake of unprecedented Iranian ballistic missile strikes aimed at American forces in the country earlier this month, which the Pentagon now says caused dozens of injuries in addition to significant damage to facilities at Al Asad Air Base. However, the U.S. government still needs permission from authorities in Iraq to do so, approval that has so far not been forthcoming, something The War Zone's Tyler Rogoway had raised as a likely issue immediately following Iran's strikes. Discussions regarding the potential deployment of the air defense are ongoing, but come amid attempts by certain Iraqi factions to secure the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from the country.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Army General Mark Milley explained the situation in response to a question from Fox News' Jennifer Griffin at a press conference on Jan. 30, 2020. There were reports last week that the U.S. military was considering deploying Patriot systems to Iraq. There has been increasing attention in the press and among the general public on the issue of American air and missile defenses in the country after it emerged that there were no such assets in place when Iran fired a flurry of ballistic missiles at U.S. forces at Al Asad, as well as Erbil International Airport, on Jan. 7. Those strikes had been in retaliation for the U.S. decision to kill Qasem Soleimani, then the head of Iran's Quds Force, on Jan. 3.

General Milley told reporters at the press conference that U.S. government is “working with the Iraqi government" on the potential Patriot deployment. "The mechanics of it all need to be worked out, and that is ongoing,” Milley said, adding that he definitely felt there was a need for air and missile defense systems in Iraq.

Neither Milley nor Esper offered any details on how many Patriot batteries they were looking to send to Iraq or where they might be positioned. A typical U.S. Army Patriot battery includes up to eight trailer-mounted launchers, an AN/MPQ-65 multifunction phased array radar, and requisite fire control, communications, and other support equipment. The AN/MPQ-65 are capable of searching for and tracking potential threats, as well as cueing the system's missile to engage them.

A now somewhat dated diagram showing the basic elements of a Patriot surface-to-air missile battery, including eight launch stations (LS), radar station (RS), engagement control station (ECS), antenna mast group (AMG) supporting the unit's communications, and electric power plant (EPP). Since this diagram was created, the Army has switched to using different vehicles to carry various elements of the system and introduced improved components, such as the AN/MPQ-65 radar, which supplanted the earlier AN/MPQ-53, but the basic organization remains largely the same., US Army

There are also a variety of interceptors available for use with the Patriot system. The latest PAC-3 Missile Segment Enhancement (MSE) interceptor, which entered full-rate production in 2018, is an improved hit-to-kill design, meaning that it destroys the incoming threat by physically smashing into it, rather than using an explosive warhead. The PAC-3 MSE, which you can read about more in this past War Zone piece, is well suited to engaging shorter-range tactical ballistic missiles, such as the ones Iran employed in its strikes aimed at U.S. forces in Iraq earlier this month.

An infographic describing the general capabilities and features of the PAC-3 MSE interceptor., Lockheed Martin

No matter what the size or composition of the projected force might be, the talks with Iraqi authorities are undoubtedly fraught with tension given calls for all U.S. forces to leave from certain factions with the country's parliament, especially pro-Iranian parties, as well as the country's own caretaker Prime Minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi. "The [American] troops’ attempt to deploy Patriot missile systems in their bases in order to beef up their combat capabilities is rejected and considered a violation of our sovereignty," Karim Alawi, who sits on the Iraqi Parliament's security and defense committee, reportedly told Baghdad Today last week.

The possibility that diplomatic tensions were at least part of the reason why U.S. had not deployed Patriots to Iraq before or after the Iranian missiles strikes is something the War Zone's Tyler Rogoway had raised on Twitter almost immediately thereafter.

Given the U.S. government's unilateral decision to kill Soleimani on Iraqi soil, Iraqi politicians and other government officials who are already predisposed to being wary of America's continued military presence in the country may also have concerns about whether any American Patriots might pose a threat to Iraqi forces in the future, should relations deteriorate further.

The U.S. military has already halted deliveries of weapons, ammunition, and other military equipment, including items related to the country's fleet of American-made F-16IQ Viper fighter jets, until such time as "the environment in Iraq is safe enough to resume" those shipments, Inside Defense reported on Jan. 27. At the same time, the Iraqi government did announce the resumption of combined operations with U.S. and other coalition forces against ISIS terrorists, which were suspended after the Soleimani strike, on Jan. 30.

For its part, the U.S. government has repeatedly denied that it has any plans to withdraw from Iraq completely. Still, there have been indications that American officials may be considering drawdowns or otherwise reshuffling forces inside the country. 

"We are down to 5,000 soldiers [in Iraq], and going down," U.S. President Donald Trump had written in a Tweet on Jan. 29. There was also particularly bizarre series of events earlier in January, in which U.S. military officials apparently inadvertently sent a letter to their Iraqi counterparts discussion preparations for the removal of at least some U.S. troops.

While the issue of Iraqi approval for the potential Patriot deployment is certainly the most immediate hurdle to sending those systems to Iraq, there are other important factors at play, as well. For one, it's hard to fathom how the U.S. military did not ensure this was taken care of earlier when the Central Intelligence Agency reportedly assessed that an Iranian ballistic missile strike on U.S. targets in the Middle East was one of the most likely responses to the U.S. killing Qasem Soleimani. The War Zone had also highlighted the threat Iran's ballistic missile arsenal posed to U.S. base in the region, which was also what had prompted the U.S. Air Force to deploy  B-52 bombers to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, out of range of these weapons, after Soleimani's death.

It's impossible that U.S. commanders in the region and at the Pentagon would have been unaware of this glaring lack of air and missile defenses in Iraq to respond to that scenario, which is exactly what happened. Even before it launched the strike that killed Soleimani, the U.S. government had been warning for months about intelligence pointing to increased risks of potential threats from Iran and its regional proxies, including the possible movement of ballistic missiles into Iraq.

The Army had sent Patriot batteries to Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion of the country in 2003, which remained there for a time as part of the subsequent occupation, but the service removed them as the prospect of major air and missile threats evaporated. It's unclear when exactly the U.S. military withdrew the Patriots from Iraq, but there is evidence that they were not being actively employed even before they were pulled out of the country entirely. One years old satellite image does appear to show an AN/MPQ-53 or AN/MPQ-65 radar in position at Al Asad, but possible Patriot missile launchers seen in the same imagery are not in a deployed configuration. 

Regardless, imagery that The War Zone exclusively obtained from Planet Labs of Al Asad in the immediate aftermath of the Iranian ballistic missile strikes on Jan. 7 confirms the Pentagon's own statements that there were no Patriot missile systems at the base at the time. At least as of the end of 2018, the Army was still operating land-based versions of the U.S. Navy's Mk 15 Phalanx close-in weapon system in Iraq in the counter-rockets, artillery, and mortars, or C-RAM, role, including one at Al Asad. These systems would not have been capable of engaging incoming Iranian ballistic missiles.

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The decision to proceed with the strike that killed Soleimani despite the obvious risks has become all the more galling as the Pentagon continued to revise its figures about the total number of U.S. casualties that resulted from the subsequent Iranian ballistic missile strikes. The U.S. government initially said that there were no casualties at all, but has now confirmed that at least 64 individuals have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries as a direct result of Iran's strikes on Al Asad. More than 200 people were within the blast zones of the impacting missiles.

The entire situation also underscores the relatively limited number of Patriot units that the Army has available, in total. This is, in part, a product of significant cuts to U.S. military air and missile defense capabilities, in general, after the end of the Cold War, which were even more pronounced when it came to reductions in short-range air defenses. At present, the service has 18 Air Defense Artillery Battalions equipped with Patriot, each of which typically has between three and five batteries, depending on its exact organization. Two of these are dedicated training units. Five of them are forward-deployed overseas, two in Germany, two in South Korea, and one in Japan. 

A graphic showing the locations of US Army air defense artillery (ADA) battalions (BN) equipped with Patriot, as well as other field artillery (FA) and air and missile defense elements, forward-deployed overseas as of January 2019. The locations of forward-deployed Marine field artillery units are also shown., US Army

This leaves just 11, around 60 percent of the Army's total Patriot force, available to respond to contingencies around the world. Typical readiness cycles mean that not all of the batteries within these battalions would ready to head out an operational assignment at once, either. 

A number of these units are already on shorter duration deployments abroad, too. There are four U.S. Patriot batteries now in Saudi Arabia, according to The Washington Post. At least one of these was already in place by July 2019, but the Army sent more in the wake of unprecedented Iranian-sponsored suicide drone and cruise missile attacks in September of that year. 

Their exact disposition is unclear, but the Pentagon had said they would help guard "critical military and civilian infrastructure" in the Kingdom. At least two batteries are at Prince Sultan Air Base. The other two could be at the Abqaiq oil processing facility and the Khurais oil field, the sites that suffered the cruise missile and drone attacks in September 2019.

All of these batteries were all in place in Saudi Arabia at the time of the Iranian ballistic missile barrage targeting U.S. forces in Iraq. Patriot units also rotate through deployments to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar and Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, too.

US Army troops practice loading Patriot missile launchers at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates., US Army

Underscoring the strain on available Army Patriot missile systems, in 2018, then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis had directed the withdrawal of batteries from Bahrain, Jordan, and Kuwait, ostensibly to free them up for deployment elsewhere. This would have also left U.S. military facilities in those countries vulnerable to Iranian missile and drone strikes in the wake of the killing of Qasem Soleimani. The Pentagon is now reportedly looking at shifting the Patriot unit presently in Saudi Arabia to Iraq, which only further highlights the limited capacity of the Army's overall Patriot force.

Some may take issue with the fact that U.S. Patriots are presently guarding areas of Saudi Arabia, but were apparently not available to protect American troops in Iraq from the very likely possibility of an Iranian counter-strike of some kind following Soleimani's death. While it's certainly true that there are diplomatic barriers to sending the surface-to-air missiles systems to Iraq, it's worth pointing out that the U.S. government ignored any such protocols when it decided to kill the Quds Force commander right outside Baghdad International Airport. American officials had also apparently disregarded potential diplomatic concerns when they approved earlier airstrikes on Iranian-backed Iraqi militias on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border in December 2019. 

Of course, It's also important to remember that even if Patriot missile systems had been in place in Iraq at the time of the Jan. 7 Iranian ballistic missile strikes that this would not have provided an absolute defense against those threats. While the latest Patriot systems are vastly most capable than the much-maligned versions that were employed during the first Persian Gulf War in 1990-1991, there is simply no such thing as a perfect missile defense shield, something the War Zone has explored in detail in the past.

It remains to be seen when, and if, the U.S. military will actually send Patriots to Iraq and what the exact composition and distribution of any such air defense force might look like in the country. There is clearly a need to provide at least some level of defense against air and missile threats aimed at American personnel in the country.

Still, the attention the Pentagon is now giving to the issue is probably small comfort to the dozens of American personnel who now suffer from traumatic brain injuries following the Iranian ballistic missile strikes earlier this month.

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