Footage has surfaced online reportedly showing the moments at which two 'suicide drones' were shot down in Iraq. A burst of 20mm cannon fire from a Centurion Counter-Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar, or C-RAM, system brings down one of the small unmanned aircraft, while the other is destroyed by a missile of some kind, possibly a Stinger.
The exact location where this video was shot has not been confirmed, but it reportedly shows drones over or at least near Ain Al Asad Air Base in Iraq, which hosts U.S. forces. Iraqi officials, as well as those from the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, announced a foiled drone attack on Ain Al Asad, which is situated around 115 miles northwest of Baghdad, earlier today. This is the second such attack in Iraq in as many days, with the one yesterday being directed at an area of Baghdad International Airport housing American troops.
“Two fixed-wing drones rigged with explosives were engaged and destroyed by defensive capabilities at the Iraqi Ain al-Asad airbase early this morning,” according to a statement from the U.S.-led coalition. “The attempted attack was unsuccessful. All forces are accounted for.”
No further details were provided about the "defensive capabilities" that were employed. The video now circulating on social media, seen earlier in this story, begins with a physical interceptor detonating near one of the drones, after which it begins spinning and then breaks up in a ball of flames.
Though we can't say with absolute certainty what this weapon might have been, its apparent relative size to the drone, as well as its detonation when it gets close to the unmanned aircraft, point to a short-range surface-to-air missile of some kind. One distinct possibility is that this is a heat-seeking FIM-92 Stinger.
The U.S. military is known to have deployed Humvee-mounted Avenger short-range air defense systems, which are armed with Stingers, as well as a .50 caliber M3P machine gun, to Iraq or Syria, or possibly both countries, on at least some occasions in recent years amid growing drone threats. The Stinger also comes in a shoulder-fired configuration, also known as a Man-Portable Air Defense System (MANPADS). Amid increasing concerns about the dangers posed by unmanned aircraft, the U.S. Army has been fielding upgraded versions of this missile with a proximity fuze that is better optimized to engage smaller, hard-to-track targets like drones.
Another possibility might be that this is a Hellfire missile. The U.S. Army recently began to field Stryker-based short-range air defense systems that have the ability to the fire millimeter-wave radar-guided AGM-114L Longbow Hellfires, as well as Stingers and a 30mm cannon, at aerial threats. However, there have been no reports of these Mobile Short Range Air Defense (M-SHORAD) systems being deployed outside of Europe so far. An Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, another asset that is at least known to have been deployed to Iraq in the past, could have fired a Hellfire at the drone, as well. This is a tactic Israel is known to employ against hostile unmanned aircraft. The War Zone has reached out to the U.S.-led coalition for more information about what effector was used and what platform launched it.
A point defense surface-to-air missile system like Avenger, or some platform employing a Hellfire, would make good sense as a complement to Centurion C-RAMs, one of which is seen shooting down the other drone in the video. Centurions brought down the pair of drones attacking Baghdad International Airport yesterday, too.
The Centurion is a land-based version of the Phalanx close-in weapon system (CIWS), which is in widespread use by the U.S. Navy and other naval forces around the world. It is armed with a Gatling-type 20mm Vulcan cannon. These guns, together with Stingers, would provide a good defensive mix against various lower-tier aerial and indirect fire threats, especially if an opponent were to launch a complex attack involving more than one type of weapon, such as drones and artillery rockets, at once.
The video below shows a Centurion C-RAM system during an unrelated test shoot.
No group has claimed responsibility for the drone attack on Ain Al Asad today or the one targeting the airport in Baghdad yesterday, but they bear hallmarks of previous incidents blamed on Iranian-backed militias in the country. In addition, the attack today comes just days before the second anniversary of Iran's unprecedented ballistic missile strikes on Ain Al Asad, as well as Erbil International Airport in northern Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region.
Those missile strikes had been in retaliation for the U.S. military's killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on Jan. 3, 2020. The drone attacks yesterday were clearly meant to mark that anniversary, with the unmanned aircraft in that case bearing slogans specifically referencing that event and Iran's subsequent threats to retaliate.
These two back-to-back drone attacks, though foiled, only underscore the very real threat that small unmanned aircraft pose now to U.S. forces operating overseas and closer to home, as well as to domestic military and civilian targets. They also demonstrate the low barrier to entry when it comes to employing unmanned aircraft in this way, something that even non-state actors can effectively employ in large numbers.
“These systems are inexpensive, easy to modify and weaponize, and easy to proliferate," U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said last year. At that time, he further explained that he was talking about readily available commercial-grade unmanned systems that could anyone could purchase at a store like Costco for around $1,000. Iran supplies its proxies, such as those in Iraq, with much more capable armed drones, as well as the technology necessary for those actors to build their own derivatives.
With all this in mind, the kind of footage that has now emerged on social media showing defenses swinging to action against the drones attacking Ain Al Asad Air Base earlier today is only likely to become a much more common sight as time goes on.
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