Iran's missile attack against Iraqi bases housing US troops on Tuesday appeared to have have fallen short of their full capabilities — and the US seemed to be prepared for it well in advance.
Prior to Iran's barrage of 15 missiles, four of which failed to hit their targets in al-Asad airbase and Erbil, US defense officials had been notified of a pending attack “hours” in advance, according to CBS News correspondent David Martin. The warnings were reportedly aggregated through a combination of satellite images and communications, similar to the US's system for monitoring North Korea's launch tests.
A 'little known' defense system
President Donald Trump in prepared remarks on Wednesday morning said the lack of US casualties were attributed to “the precautions taken, the dispersal of forces, and an early warning that worked very well.”
US defense officials spanning multiple agencies did not provide specifics on the warning systems, citing operational security measures.
But US troops have historically relied upon a host of different warning systems and defense capabilities in Iraq, such as the Counter Rocket, Artillery, Mortar system (C-RAM), which “detects, warns, and intercepts” smaller munitions from the enemy.
US forces reportedly could not intercept the inbound missiles because defense systems, such as the US Army's Patriot missile defense system, were deployed to other regions in the Middle East at the time. Alarm systems are also used to alert personnel on base to incoming fire and instruct them to take cover.
Despite the absence of these interceptors, the US still has other assets at its disposal, including a “little known” missile tracking system.
The National Security Agency's Defense Special Missile and Aerospace Center (DEFSMAC), headquartered in Fort. Meade, Maryland, is an around-the-clock missile and space surveillance system comprised of satellites and ground stations, according to the George Washington University. Since its inception in 1964, DEFSMAC has alerted the US of Iranian short-range ballistic missiles during the Gulf War, and North Korea's missile tests.
An actual warning
Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi also said he was notified by Tehran that an attack “was starting or would start soon,” and that it would be against bases housing US forces.
Although US forces are invited in the country in an advisory role, the US's capabilities in the country and neighboring Kuwait far outweigh that of the Iraqi military. This relationship between the Iraqis and US likely allows the host country to work in conjunction with the US to disseminate information to coalition forces.
Other coalition nations, including Finland and Lithuania, said they received information that suggested an imminent attack would take place, prompting their forces to take refuge, according to The Associated Press.
Ten of the fifteen missiles hit al-Asad airbase, a large remote base located in the western province of Anbar. The impact of the missiles and the location of the strike raised questions on whether Iran had intended to hurt the US, or score domestic political points at home.
One analyst assessed the attack was a measured response by Iran, rather than an outright declaration of war, primarily catered for Iranian audiences.
“Iran's attacks tonight appeared designed for maximum domestic effect with minimum escalatory risk,” Henry Rome, an analyst for the political consulting firm Eurasia Group, said in a statement to Business Insider.
“The missile launches coincided, almost down to the minute, with the final burial of Qassem [Soleimani],” Rome said, referring to the elite Quds Force commander who was killed in a US-led airstrike in Baghdad last week.
Rome added that although this was “an unprecedented move” to attack a base housing US troops, the Iranians have so far indicated that “this round is over.”
Iranian officials have issued fiery statements in the hours following the attack, but have also qualified their remarks. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif claimed in a tweet that his country's missile attacks were merely “proportionate measures in self-defense,” adding that he did “not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.”
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Wednesday described the missile attacks as merely “a slap in the face,” and that Tehran's retaliatory move was not comparable to the US's continued presence in the region, nor the death of Soleimani.
President Donald Trump appeared to suggest that further military action was not warranted yet, and said “the American people should be extremely grateful and happy.”
“We suffered no casualties, all of our soldiers are safe, and only minimal damage was sustained at our military bases,” Trump said, adding that “Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world.”
But despite these assessments, Pentagon leaders said the Iranian missiles were intended to kill US forces, and were not merely a show of force, according to McClatchy reporter Tara Copp.