Iran’s missile and drone threat is advancing

Michael Doran
Michael Doran
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By any objective measure, the military power of the United States continues to dwarf that of the Islamic Republic. The protests on the streets of Iran’s cities prove that the regime in Tehran is a decayed husk, deeply unpopular and beset by myriad vulnerabilities that a deft American policy could exploit. The United States has the military capabilities to prevent Iran from advancing toward a nuclear bomb and to deter it from threatening its neighbors—and it can do so without sparking a major war.

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It has more than enough might to reassure allies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that they can rest comfortably under the American power umbrella. What is more, the allies want to remain inside the American system. The erosion of the American order is therefore more the result of confusion in Washington than of objective shifts in global power. But how and when will that confusion cease, so that a more mutually beneficial relationship might flower?

When President Joe Biden visited Saudi Arabia in July, he sensed the existing distrust and tried to dispel it. “We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran,” he said. But promises like this fail to reassure the allies, who are looking not for sweet words but resolute action that deters Iran. In the Middle East today, the United States has drawn its defensive perimeter in a highly ambiguous fashion. The ambiguity has emboldened China, Russia, and Iran, and sown mistrust in the hearts of allies. The Biden administration has failed to recognize the problem and, therefore, has not begun to address it. News of the demise of the American order in the Middle East is certainly premature, but the ground beneath it is shifting in very unsettling ways that American policymakers appear determined to ignore.

On Jan. 17 of this year, the Houthis, Iran’s proxy in Yemen, launched an Iranian-made ballistic missile at an oil facility in the UAE near Al Dhafra Air Base. The missile failed to reach its target when the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD), a state-of-the-art American missile defense system, successfully intercepted it. Unmanned aerial vehicles (called UAVs or drones), which the Houthis launched simultaneously, managed to break through the defensive net, killing three people.

This attack marked the first ever use of the THAAD system in combat. One week later, on Jan. 24, the THAAD batteries were back in action, countering two Iranian-made missiles aimed directly at Al Dhafra, where approximately 2,000 American soldiers are stationed. As the missiles hurtled their way toward the Americans, THAAD and Patriot interceptors worked together to down them, narrowly averting disaster. On that day, the Houthis also simultaneously launched two ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia. One was intercepted; the other one wounded two people.

Key elements of these attacks remain shrouded in secrecy. The Americans, the Emiratis, and the Houthis themselves have refrained from identifying some of the targeted sites. For all we know, one of the unidentified targets might have been the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world which holds up to 10,000 people. These attacks could easily have generated a mass casualty event, resulting in more deaths than al-Qaida’s operations on 9/11. If the Houthis had hit Al Dhafra, the resulting loss of American life could have taken the United States into war.

One person who has observed and analyzed the threat of Iran’s rapidly advancing drone and missile capabilities more closely than almost anyone is Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., who retired in April as the commander of U.S. Central Command, the combatant operations command responsible for prosecuting the wars in the greater Middle East. On Oct. 6, McKenzie discussed the improved quality of Iranian weapons, emphasizing three systems in particular: ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and drones. “Over the past five to seven years, Iranian capabilities in these three domains have risen to such a degree that they now possess what I would call effective ‘overmatch’ against their neighbors,” he said at a public event at Policy Exchange, a London think tank. “‘Overmatch,’” he explained, “is a military term that means you have the ability to attack, and your defender will not be able to mount a successful defense.”

McKenzie’s remarks were timely and candid, but they danced around the money question. Saudi Arabia and the UAE rely on the United States for their defense: If Iran possesses overmatch against them, does it also possess overmatch against the United States?

Drones are seen at an underground site at an undisclosed location in Iran, in this handout image obtained on May 28, 2022. (Reuters)
Drones are seen at an underground site at an undisclosed location in Iran, in this handout image obtained on May 28, 2022. (Reuters)

Iran’s confidence that it can threaten American forces without cost suggests that it does. “We have built power to defeat the U.S.,” said Gen. Hossein Salami the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the elite branch of the Iranian armed forces, in September 2021, following an IRGC strike on a CIA hangar inside an airport complex in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil. “Today we no longer see a dangerous U.S., but we witness a failed, fleeing, and depressed U.S.,” the general continued.

Salami’s statement was not mere bluster. Iran can supply the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation with drones and missiles for the invasion of Ukraine in part because its products are worth buying, and in part because it no longer fears an American response to actions that might lead to the battlefield deaths of NATO advisers. That’s because, whether from its own territory or from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, or Gaza, Iran can strike the major population centers and the critical national infrastructure of every Middle Eastern country that relies on the United States for its security. The tanker traffic through the Strait of Hormuz is easy pickings, as is every American base in the Middle East.

As America relaxes sanctions, in the hopes of luring the Iranians back into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the Iran nuclear deal is officially known, the quality of Iran’s drone and missile packages threatens to take another big leap forward. A peek into the guts of the Russian-manufactured missiles that the Russian military is firing at Ukraine today offers a window onto Iran’s weapons of tomorrow. If the JCPOA is resurrected, the IRGC will go on a shopping spree. Iran’s weapons producers will integrate Western parts into their own ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and drones, making them smarter, faster, and more maneuverable, and increasing the threat that they pose to American bases and American allies.

The lifting of American sanctions, however, will allow the IRGC to build a reliable supply chain of Western parts. The resulting standardization of Iranian products will reduce unit costs. Sales and profits will increase significantly. As Iran continues its rise as a global arms exporter, the size, sophistication, and firepower of its arsenals will also rise. Overmatch will increase.

The expanding sophistication and size of the IRGC’s disruptive arsenal allow Iran and its proxies to combine missiles, drones, and loitering munitions in the same “strike package”—a practice that taxes even state-of-the-art air and missile defense architectures. The combination of loitering munitions, ballistic, and cruise missiles that the Houthis launched at the UAE last January exemplifies the trend. Loitering munitions confuse sensors, especially at slower speeds, because they blend in with “ground clutter”—factors such as birds, tall buildings, and storms. In addition, swarms of loitering munitions, cheaper in unit costs, can easily saturate interceptor missiles. With their great maneuverability and low-altitude navigation skills, cruise missiles minimize their exposure to radar or avoid it altogether. Finally, ballistic missiles come in hard and fast like a bullet, carrying large warheads capable of much heavier destruction. Each one of these weapons poses its own special challenge to the sensors and interceptors of a missile defense network. When all three are combined in significant numbers, they will stress any network to a breaking point.

This photo released Jan. 15, 2021, by the Imamedia, shows Iranian drones flying during a drill. (AP)
This photo released Jan. 15, 2021, by the Imamedia, shows Iranian drones flying during a drill. (AP)

Iran’s disruptive military capacity has created, in military parlance, an “offense-dominant regime” in the Middle East—a balance of power that favors Iranian offensive action. What Gen. McKenzie calls “overmatch” represents a failure by America to heed an ironclad law of military science: Defensive systems alone cannot reverse an offense-dominant regime. Offensive countermeasures are the sole means to restore the balance—through the elementary logic of deterrence.

For Iran to halt its aggression, leaders in Tehran must believe that America and allied forces will respond to provocations by exacting an unbearable cost. To be truly persuasive, American and allied forces must have at their ready sufficient firepower to respond instantaneously, and they must also demonstrate a steadfast willingness to conduct offensive operations. In the view of senior officials in the Biden administration, offensive countermeasures against Iran will destroy the possibility of returning to the JCPOA. It will also push Iran closer to China and Russia. In his bid for the presidency in 2020, Biden campaigned on the idea that diplomatic engagement with Iran was, to quote an op-ed published under his name, “a smarter way” to contain the IRGC’s proxy network and to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon. A decision by Biden to adopt offensive countermeasures against Iran would place him on a collision course with the left-wing of his base.

After the Jan. 24 ballistic missile attack on American forces, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with the Saudi and Emirati ambassadors to the United States. According to the official summary of the meeting, the three did not discuss the Iranian ballistic missile attack on American forces but rather “the ongoing Houthi attacks against civilian targets in the UAE and Saudi Arabia that have resulted in civilian casualties in both countries.” In other words, Sullivan publicly framed the attacks as part of a bilateral contest over Yemen between Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the one hand, and the Houthis on the other—erasing entirely the Iranian role in the attacks. That’s because any public acknowledgement of Tehran’s decisive role would inevitably open the Biden administration to questions about how it plans to counter Iran. These are inconvenient questions, because the administration has no such plan, and no intention of developing one.

If the Americans won’t even defend themselves, the Emiratis and Saudis wonder, why would they ever defend us? Yet there is one thing that the Biden administration is clearly hardwired to defend: the JCPOA. For nearly two years, the administration has presented the resurrection of the nuclear deal as an essential first step to solving all problems related to Iran. A return to the JCPOA, however, will not reduce the deterrence gap created by Iran’s disruptive military capacity. It will only widen it. The evidence for this is in front of our eyes, in the form of the Russian military’s need for a large-scale supply of Iranian weapons to sustain its campaign in Ukraine. With or without the JCPOA, Iran’s drone and missile programs will grow, although they will expand much faster under a revived nuclear deal.

All this activity has taken place against the backdrop of increasingly close UAE ties with China. In the spring of 2021, U.S. intelligence agencies learned, according to The Wall Street Journal, that China was secretly building what they suspected was a military facility in the UAE. Of all the forms of hedging by America’s Gulf allies, the hedging toward Beijing is the one that should alarm Washington the most.

Yet in what has become a clear pattern since the arrival of President Biden in office, American forces launched no militarily significant response to what, in effect, was an Iranian attack on American forces—an event that, in terms of its geopolitical impact, was every bit as important as the widely reported news that Iran is supplying the armies of Russian leader Vladimir Putin with missile and drone packages for use in the Ukraine war. In fact, the developments in the Arabian Gulf and in Ukraine are linked. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been on the receiving end of sophisticated Iranian missiles and drones for around five years now. The immunity from counterattack that Iran has enjoyed has emboldened it to support Russia. Moreover, it has set America’s Gulf allies on a quest for security that, increasingly, is taking them out of the arms of the United States and into the waiting embrace of China. The week before last, the Saudi Foreign Ministry announced no less than three summit meetings between the Saudis, the Gulf States, and regional Arab countries with the Chinese, concurrent with the anticipated visit of China’s President Xi Jinping to the kingdom.

Those analysts who insist that China is not seeking to supplant the United States in the Middle East rest their argument on the claim that China’s interests in the region are overwhelmingly commercial. If Beijing were to involve itself in security matters, so the argument goes, it would have to take sides in bitter disputes, such as those between Iran and its antagonists. Instead, Beijing seeks good relations with all sides, so that it will not be shut out of any market and be free to buy and sell from all. In addition, the analysts note that Beijing does not have the alliance musculature to provide credible security guarantees and to back them up with continuous delivery of reliable weaponry. Beijing simply cannot offer America’s allies what they want most—namely, protection from Iran. Only the United States can provide the necessary security umbrella.

American analysts inside and outside government paid scant attention to Xi’s change of course in 2016, when competition with the United States in the Middle East took an overtly military turn. This was the year that Xi first decided to build the base in Djibouti. In January of that year, he visited the region, stopping in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iran, which received special attention. While in Tehran, he and his hosts drafted a 25-year “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership,” which was finalized five years later, in 2021. The exact details of the agreement are still unknown, but credible reporting indicates that China has pledged to invest $400 billion in exchange for a discounted supply of oil. The two powers will also increase their cooperation in security and defense, including in weapons development.

China now holds the balance between Iran and the Gulf States with respect to the very weapons that give Iran its disruptive military edge. Xi Jinping has managed to insinuate China into the balance of power between America’s Gulf allies and Iran. The significance of this fact increases when considering an additional advantage that, in the eyes of America’s allies, China holds over the United States. Beijing, unlike Washington, actually wields influence in Tehran—in fact, it is the only power that does.

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