The Pentagon is downplaying the vulnerability of US bases in the Middle East to air attack, following a fatal drone strike against an American outpost in Jordan.
That attack on 28 January killed three US Army troops at a support base along the Syrian border known as Tower 22.
The base’s troop barracks was impacted by an explosively armed one-way uncrewed aerial vehicle (UAV), also known as a kamikaze drone or suicide drone.
Washington blamed the attack on militant groups linked to Iran, and unleashed a barrage of retaliatory air strikes in Iraq and Syria – including a transcontinental bombing mission by US Air Force Boeing B-1B Lancer bombers.
Although an investigation into the Tower 22 attack is still underway, initial reports indicate the enemy drone may have been able to penetrate local air defences by flying closely behind an American UAV preparing to land at the facility.
However the deadly feat was accomplished, the Pentagon says its air defences remain highly effective against threats in the region.
“For a majority, those attacks have been unsuccessful,” deputy Pentagon press secretary Sabrina Singh said on 6 February.
The Pentagon says there have been more than 160 attacks similar to the Tower 22 incursion against US bases in the Middle East during recent months.
Although the casualties in Jordan are the only directly-related fatalities that have been identified by the Pentagon, dozens of traumatic brain injuries and at least one cardiac arrest have been reported among US personnel targeted by the militant campaign.
Despite those casualties, the Pentagon still describes its air defences as “largely successful”.
“Our air defences have been able to catch or been able to destroy any impact or any incoming… whether it be rockets or drones at bases,” says Singh.
US bases employ a variety of air defence measures, tailored for the local threat environment.
Facilities in the Middle East typically use a short-range system called the Raytheon Counter-Rocket, Artillery, Mortar (C-RAM) to defend against rocket and UAV attacks.
The C-RAM is a land-based version of the radar-guided Phalanx cannon that defends US Navy ships. The M61 Vulcan cannon used on both the Phalanx and C-RAM systems is also the same family of gun found on the Lockheed Martin F-22 and F-16 and Boeing F-15 fighters.
The US Army has also begun deploying the Raytheon Coyote UAV interceptor. The tube-launched, expendable UAV is designed to identify, track and destroy threatening drones, according to Raytheon.
The army last December announced a major acquisition of the Coyote system, with plans to purchase some 6,700 interceptors. Defence start-up Anduril is offering a competing platform, which it calls the Roadrunner.
It remains unclear what protective measures were in place at Tower 22 at the time of the 28 January attack.
The Pentagon has said it will not disclose what tactical changes are being made in the wake of that incident, citing operational security.