Following the Jan. 8 Iranian ballistic missile attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq, Pentagon officials indicated they were considering moving Patriot missile defense systems into Iraq. But weeks later, there has been no movement of Patriot batteries into Iraqi territory.
According to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, there’s a legal hurdle the military must overcome to deploy those systems there.
“One of the things we have to do is make sure we have permission from the host government, and that’s one of the matters we have to work on and work through,” Esper said at a news conference Thursday. “We need the permission of the Iraqis. That’s one issue. There may be others with regard to the placement, things like that, more tactical, operational — it’s a combination of things.”
Added Milley: “We’re working with the Iraqi government.”
He said the “science of war” is complicating the ability to quickly deploy the missile defense system. A Patriot battalion is “not a small organization, it’s relatively large, so the mechanics of it all have to be worked out. And that is in fact ongoing,” he added.
Asked if he felt the Patriot system is needed in Iraq, Milley simply said: “Yes.” Esper later added that the decision comes from the head of U.S. Central Command, but that “we support” that decision.
On Jan. 2, a U.S. airstrike killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Iraq. Days later, Iran retaliated by launching 16 ballistic missiles targeting the al-Asad and Irbil air bases in Iraq. Eleven missiles hit al-Asad and one struck Irbil. The Pentagon claims four failed in flight.
No U.S. troops were killed in the attack, although there is a growing number of uniformed personnel who are suffering from what the Pentagon calls “mild traumatic brain injury” — essentially concussions.
The U.S. has a limited number of Patriot systems available at any one time, and it is expected any system that goes to Iraq will be moved from Saudi Arabia, where they were placed in the latter half of 2019.
Whether the Patriot system would have perfectly intercepted the Iranian missiles is impossible to know, but Milley seemed to throw his support behind the system, saying “that’s what they’re designed to do. Can’t say for certain obviously whether in that case, at those altitudes, at those ranges, etc. if that would have happened, but that is exactly what they are deigned to do.”
The chairman later added that given the size of the weapons used by Iran — in the 1,000- to 2,000-pound range — it remains his belief that Iran’s intent “was not only to destroy facilities and equipment but also to kill people.”
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.