Washington (CNN) – President Joe Biden’s decision to carry out airstrikes against Iran-backed militia groups on the Iraq-Syria border on Sunday night follows a recent spate of attacks on U.S. military assets in Iraq by a new class of Iranian-made drones that US authorities say can evade the country’s surveillance and defenses.
The most recent case of these attacks occurred earlier this month, when an armed drone detonated in a dining room located at a key entry point of the Baghdad airport, used by US soldiers and diplomats, according to a military official from the United States. United States to CNN. In April, a drone damaged a CIA hangar near Erbil.
U.S. airstrikes late Sunday hit weapons storage and operational facilities at two locations in Syria and one in Iraq, according to the Pentagon. The targets were “selected because these facilities are used by Iranian-backed militias involved in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strikes against US personnel and facilities in Iraq,” the institution said.
For months, intelligence services and US military personnel in Iraq have been warning of the risk posed to US forces by these new and more sophisticated Iranian-made drones. Rather than being guided by a pilot from a remote location, some of these small fixed-wing drones use GPS navigation, making them much less visible to US surveillance systems and immune to interference.
“Suffice it to say that (the CIA) is paying a lot of attention to this issue now, because those things tend to wake you up a bit,” said a former intelligence official with experience in the region.
While rocket attacks on US personnel in Iraq have become almost routine, these new Iranian-made drones, the so-called suicide drones, are seen by US military and intelligence personnel as a clear escalation. by Iran, and a troubling sign to intelligence officials that the United States no longer enjoys autonomy in the skies of Iraq.
New drone technology
The new drones, loaded with explosives, have different sizes ranging from one and a half meters wingspan to 3.5 or 4 meters, according to a US military official. The larger versions can carry up to 30 kilograms of explosives.
They are much smaller and less lethal than the US-made MQ-9 Reaper drones. But current and former officials say these new Iranian-made drones pose a unique threat, in part because Tehran cannot deny their existence, as no one else is known to have the technology. Unlike the more common and often fired Katyusha rockets at US troops in Iraq, US officials say there is no question that Iran is providing them to the complex network of militias seeking to expel United States of Iraq.
They are also substantially more dangerous, these sources say.
“Someone could die, and more so than in the past, because these things are accurate,” said a US military official who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity. “We think they are effectively targeting their targets … and the warheads on these things are pretty substantial.”
A key aspect for officers tracking the threat of these new drones is that many use GPS to find their target, making it very difficult to defend against them.
“What we used to do in the past was to try to interfere with the link between the person who was piloting it and the aircraft or to seize it,” the former intelligence official told CNN. “That’s what we are still trying to do, but… now they just send it to a GPS. There is no link, there is nothing to interfere, there is nothing to control.
It also “makes them less visible,” said that person. “If they are talking to someone then they broadcast something, and it is easier for us to find it. It allows us to return it to the point of origin.
These smaller drones are also “increasingly used by enemy forces for intelligence gathering at US bases and its allies,” a spokesman for the US mission in Iraq confirmed to CNN.
Increased political tensions
The increase in attacks with these more sophisticated drones is part of an ongoing effort by Iran to use militias in Iraq to try to expel the United States from the region, sources tell CNN. To complicate matters, they also come as the Biden administration is conducting delicate negotiations with Tehran on a new nuclear deal.
The attacks also come just over a week after Iran elected a new hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi. Last week, Raisi said he would not meet with Biden, even if both sides agreed on terms to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, under which Iran agreed to halt uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of crippling US sanctions.
Sunday’s attacks are the second time Biden has opted to use force in the region. In February launched air strikes in eastern Syria against buildings he claimed were used by Iranian-backed militias to launch attacks against US forces in Iraq.
Military officials have raised concerns about the proliferation of drones in the region for more than a year, particularly after they were used in the attack on a Saudi oil refinery in 2019. The multiple suicide drone attacks on Riyadh launched by Houthi fighters supplied by Iran have also raised concerns.
Unlike a rocket, which has to be launched from close to the target, drones can fly at a much greater distance and can be launched from anywhere. The smallest can simply be launched from a roof. The largest ones can fly from the back of a pickup truck, according to sources familiar with the technology.
General Frank McKenzie, US chief executive officer for the Middle East, said earlier this year that “drones are the greatest threat to US forces in the region.”
Then, in April, one of these drones damaged a CIA hangar in Erbil. Although authorities do not necessarily believe that the perpetrators knew the hangar belonged to the agency (hangars are high-value targets regardless of which government agency owns them), the attack was a bewildering escalation.
These drones have been used in at least five attacks since April, although in some cases the drone missed its target or was shot down by US defenses. At least some military personnel have lobbied for the United States to respond to the attacks.
“We have no definitive evidence to say that Iran is saying ‘do this’ or ‘don’t do this,'” the US military official said, adding that there is “a growing belief” that some of the attacks are carried out by “Rebel elements” without direction or permission from Iran.
“But who provided the weapons systems, who provided the training … absolutely none of that is in doubt,” this person said. There is “no doubt” that the technology comes from Iran.