General Qasim Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force is dead as are several senior Iraqi officials affiliated with Shia militia in Iraq. They were killed in an American airstrike last night in Baghdad. The world is a better place. Soleimani was a terrorist and an enemy of the United States. The Shia militia leaders were part of Iran’s network of proxy armies across the Middle East dedicated to spreading Iran’s particularly virulent strain of religious extremism and hate.
In Tehran, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is calling for revenge against the “criminals” who killed Soleimani. Let’s hope we’ve learned some lessons since the Abqaiq attacks.
On September 14, 2019 Iranian missiles and drones struck the Saudi oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais in eastern Saudi Arabia. While Houthi rebels aligned with Iran claimed responsibility the Saudis said the attack came from the north and east in the direction of Iran. U.S. authorities have since stated that the attack was launched from a site inside Iran near the Iraqi border. Other reports, including some from Israel, have suggested that the attack was actually launched from inside Iraq by Iranian forces there.
Two things appear clear. The Iranians were behind the attack, and there was no warning whatsoever of the inbound missiles and drones. The Saudis, and the United States military, became aware of the attack when things began blowing up on the ground inside Saudi Arabia.
Leaving aside for a moment what this says about Saudi air defenses, let’s consider what this means for the U.S. military in the Persian Gulf.
The United States maintains a series of massive bases in the Middle East arrayed between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The headquarters of U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is in Bahrain, an island nation just off the east coast of Saudi Arabia. Seven-thousand American servicemen and women are stationed here. Bahrain also is the location of Sheikh Isa Airbase from which the United States operates fighter jets and surveillance aircraft and a U.S. special forces operations center.
There are in excess of five-thousand American troops in Iraq.
Thirteen-thousand American troops are in Kuwait at the northern end of the Persian Gulf. The U.S. military’s largest regional air logistics point is located here.
The forward headquarters of the U.S. military’s Central Command is in Qatar at Al Udeid Air Base. There are at any one time up to 13,000 American troops here. There are plans for the expansion of Al Udeid Air Base to allow for the deployment of additional forces.
The United States pulled troops out of Saudi Arabia after 9/11. Recently, U.S. forces began to redeploy to the kingdom. Fighter aircraft, air defense missiles and U.S. troops are now situated at Prince Sultan Airbase near Riyadh.
Jebel Ali port in Dubai is the largest port of call for the U.S. Navy outside of America. There are 5,000 American military personnel in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), most of them at Abu Dhabi’s Al Dhafra Airbase, where American drones and F-35 fighter aircraft are stationed.
And, the Iranians flew both drones and missiles threw the teeth of this massive military structure undetected.
The implications for possible follow-on attacks on Saudi oil facilities are huge, as are the ramifications for the security of our own forces in the region. From Fifth Fleet Headquarters in Manama, Bahrain to the coast of Iran is roughly 100 miles. A cruise missile can cover that distance in less than fifteen minutes. That’s not a lot of time to detect the attack and respond before hundreds of Americans are killed.
Iran has a large and robust military. Its missile programs are highly advanced. In particular, it has invested heavily in cruise missiles, which fly close the earth and are notoriously hard to detect. Cruise missiles are also capable of following a prescribed flight path and hitting a target from multiple directions.
Iran has also had the benefit of foreign assistance. Most of its cruise missile capability is based on the Soviet Kh-55, an air-launched cruise missile that Tehran imported in 2001 and later converted for ground-launch. The Iranian copy of the Kh-55, called the Soumar, may have been what was used to attack Abqaiq. Iranian efforts to upgrade the Soumar, as well as other cruise missiles in its inventory, are ongoing.
The Iranian willingness to use these weapons on the U.S. military is not in question. Even before the killing of Soleimani, Iranian officials were crystal clear about their intentions. Speaking earlier this year Amirali Hajizadeh, head of the IRGC’s aerospace division, had this to say. “An aircraft carrier that has at least 40 to 50 planes on it and 6,000 forces gathered within it was a serious threat for us in the past but now it is a target and the threats have switched to opportunities.”
We have had three and a half months since the Abqaiq attacks to figure out what went wrong and make the needed changes. Let’s hope we have done so. In the wake of the killing of General Soleimani it could well be our forces that the Iranians will hit next.