Early Mar. 13, Iran fired 12 long-range ballistic missiles into the autonomous Iraqi Kurdish capital Erbil. The missiles crashed in a residential area, causing some notable property damage, including to the headquarters of the local Kurdistan 24 news agency, but no casualties. Iran dubiously claimed the target was an Israeli base without disclosing any credible evidence.
Shortly after the attack, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that Washington is working on getting Iraq the means it needs to defend itself against such threats.
“We are in consultation with the Iraqi government and the government in Iraqi Kurdistan, in part to help them get the missile defense capabilities to be able to defend themselves in their cities,” he said.
It’s unclear what he meant by that. Iraq presently possesses few notable air defenses aside from Pantsir-S1 it acquired from Russia in the 2010s that are designed for point defense. Iraqi Kurdistan cannot independently buy or import air defenses since it isn’t an independent state. As a result, it has been vulnerable to a slew of militia rocket and drone attacks, which invariably target the U.S. troops base on the grounds of Erbil International Airport, since the fall of 2020.
In January 2020, that airport was targeted by Iranian ballistic missiles as part of Tehran’s retaliation for the U.S. assassination of Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force days earlier. As with the enormous Ain al-Asad base in Iraq’s western Anbar province, that base had no air defenses to protect U.S. troops.
A few months later, the U.S. deployed MIM-104 Patriot PAC-3 air defenses and Counter rocket, artillery, and mortar (C-RAM) systems to both bases to protect against such threats.
“Iraqi Kurdistan is an inviting target for Iranian and Iranian proxy attacks by missiles, rockets, and drones because a major U.S. military installation is located on a civilian airport and the U.S. consulate can be targeted from multiple approaches, both urban and rural,” Nicholas Heras, the Deputy Director of the Human Security Unit at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, told me.
“U.S. facilities in Iraqi Kurdistan would at a bare minimum require a web of anti-air capabilities including Patriot, C-RAM, and Avenger systems.”
However, Heras pointed out that such systems are not enough to protect the facilities and that “a more comprehensive air shield would need to be extended over at least the city of Erbil.”
“THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Air Defense) systems, which are present in other areas of the Middle East that host U.S. facilities and are similarly threatened by Iran, would also need to be deployed,” he said. “Defending Iraqi Kurdish areas beyond the U.S. facilities are now necessary for a better defense of U.S. personnel in Iraqi Kurdistan.”
Heras concluded by noting that Iraqi Kurdistan is dependent on a U.S. presence to deploy more advanced air defense systems on its soil, given Erbil’s complex relationship with Baghdad.
“A deal with Baghdad would allow for longer-term anti-air defenses to be permanently present in Iraqi Kurdistan,” he said.
Alex Almeida, an Iraq security analyst at energy consultancy Horizon Client Access, is unsure what Sullivan was talking about when he made that remark. He’s also “skeptical the U.S. will move Patriots back to Erbil given how in demand these assets are at the moment in Eastern Europe and the Asia Pacific.”
He also ruled out the “transfer or sale of Patriots or THAAD systems to Iraq or the KRI (Kurdistan Region of Iraq)” but speculated the U.S. might help the latter acquire smaller portable counter-UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) systems to deal with the persistent militia drone threat it faces.
Michael Knights, a noted Iraq expert and the Jill and Jay Bernstein Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, pointed out that the U.S. presently cannot supply or loan Patriot missiles to Iraq that will get there in time to help.
“In my view, we need to find a third party to assist – not Israel as that is too toxic but some user of older U.S. systems,” he told me.
However, Iraq may find its options are quite limited.
Germany operates Patriot missiles and previously sold some second-hand batteries to South Korea, which is threatened by North Korea’s arsenal of long-range missiles. However, Germany may be reluctant to sell or transfer any of these missiles to Iraq at present due to its preoccupation with the Ukraine crisis. Also, Berlin has had a long-standing policy of not supplying arms to countries a war, a policy it revised for the unprecedented Ukraine crisis and also made an exception to when it provided G36 assault rifles and Milan anti-tank missiles to the Kurdish Peshmerga when ISIS attacked Iraqi Kurdistan in August 2014.
Several of the Arab nations in the Persian Gulf have advanced Patriot missiles. The UAE even has THAAD and was the first country to use that system in combat when it shot down a ballistic missile fired at Abu Dhabi from Yemen.
In 2015, the UAE reportedly contemplated supplying Iraq with up to 10 of its air force’s French-built multirole Dassault Mirage 2000 jet fighter-bombers but never did. Given the increased threat posed by Houthi missiles and drones from Yemen, as shown in the unprecedented attacks against Abu Dhabi in January, the UAE will not likely supply any of its air defense systems to Iraq anytime soon.
Saudi Arabia is even less likely to supply its northern neighbor with any of its Patriots since it is reportedly running dangerously low on interceptor missiles due to continuous Houthi missile and drone attacks.
Jordan, which also acquired Patriots second-hand from Germany, has too few of the batteries to offer Baghdad, so Amman isn’t a likely candidate either.
Egypt, on the other hand, could prove a viable candidate. It operates the Patriot PAC-3 and various other air defense systems, including the Russian-built S-300VM. If the U.S. is serious about helping Iraq improve its air and missile defenses in the near future, it could well ask Cairo to transfer its batteries to provide area defense for Baghdad and Erbil and offer to replenish its stockpiles in the foreseeable future. Defense ties between the U.S. and Egypt appear to be going quite well these days in light of the fact that Washington reportedly plans to sell Cairo F-15s for the first time so this could be a possibility.