Two years after Suleimani assassination, Iraq seeks new drone defences

Drone attacks on diplomatic and government buildings have increased in recent months

Iraqi rapid intervention forces advance as they take part in an operation against Islamic State (IS) group jihadists east of Tuz Khurmatu on February 7, 2018.


The army, rapid intervention forces and paramilitaries, in coordination with Kurdish fighters and with Iraqi and coalition air cover, launched the operation "to chase away IS remnants," said Iraq's Security Information Centre. / AFP PHOTO / Mahmud SALEH
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Iraq is in talks to procure new counter-drone systems to protect its airspace, a senior military officer said on Sunday.

Lt Gen Maan Al Saadi's remarks came on the eve of a drone attack on Baghdad's international airport on Monday, just hours after a ceremony was held outside to commemorate the second anniversary of the deaths of Iranian commander Qassem Suleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis in an American drone strike on January 3, 2020, near Baghdad airport.

Al Muhandis was the de facto head of the country's Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) and leader of the Iran-backed PMF group Kataib Hezbollah.

The attack on the Suleimani-Muhandis convoy followed a lethal tit-for-tat escalation between Iran-backed elements of the PMF and US forces based in Iraq as part of the global anti-ISIS coalition. It led then prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to briefly suspend coalition flights over Iraqi territory.

But two years after the killings, which nearly sparked a regional conflict, Iraq's airspace has become a battleground for an array of different drone systems.

Drone attacks on joint Iraqi-US bases, attributed to Iran-backed militias, increased last year.

On November 7, bomb-laden drones were used in a failed assassination attempt on Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi at his official residence. Six bodyguards were injured.

The attack followed threatening comments against Mr Al Kadhimi by leaders of Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl Al Haq, both Iran-backed militias in the PMF.

Kataib Hezbollah spokesman Abu Ali Al Askari previously accused Mr Al Kadhimi of being an American agent who was responsible for the deaths of Suleimani and Al Muhandis, the militia's former leader.

Iran-backed elements of the PMF have been angered by Mr Al Kadhimi's failure to punish or expel coalition forces following lethal US air strikes on their positions.

According to analysts Michael Knights and Hamdi Malik at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Kataib Hezbollah leads PMF drone operations.

Detecting drones

The Iraqi authorities said the two small quadcopter drones used in the attack on Mr Al Kadhimi were locally made.

Photos released by Iraqi forces of a bomb carried by one of the drones showed a design similar to a device developed by Iran-backed militias.

The black bomb contained a copper charge known as an explosively formed penetrator, which US forces say is a signature weapon of Iran-backed groups.

Lt Gen Saadi, the head of the army's Air Defence Command, said Iraq had anti-drone systems that can detect small devices "but they are limited and there's only a few available".

He said the government wants to "obtain better-quality systems to address threats that affect officials and vital places in Iraq, especially in Baghdad and other provinces".

Lt Gen Saadi said Iraq's Defence Council had approved the plan to expand the military's anti-drone capability.

"We have had offers from international companies but negotiations are still ongoing," he said.

The officer, who previously commanded a brigade of Iraq's US-trained Counter Terrorism Service, said the military already has "radar detection systems as well as communications and electronic jamming systems".

"We can also counter long and medium-range missiles," he said.

Iraq currently uses short-range air defence systems such as the American-made Avenger, which the US has installed at its bases in Syria to bolster their defences against Iranian drones. Iraq also has the Russian Pantsir system, which can also be used against drones.

"We need more of that," Lt Gen Saadi said, suggesting that Iraq might purchase the new Russian S-500 missile system, which its designers say can counter small drones as well as aircraft.

But purchasing new systems might not solve the drone problem. Much of the latest technology is untested in combat, according to an analyst at Aurora Intel, a security consultancy.

"These drones are non-conventional war munitions, which have only seen one actual war for use, so the major players haven’t really made any true advances in countering them," the analyst, who asked to remain anonymous, told The National.

"Loitering munitions have an advantage at the moment, in that they have advanced far quicker than the technology designed to stop them," he said, referring to systems sometimes called "kamikaze drones".

World powers, including the US and China, are still developing the next generation of anti-drone systems, including ground-based lasers, jamming devices and AI-assisted systems.

A significant problem is detecting small, low-flying objects that are often not large enough to appear on radar.

Growing threat

The drones used in Iraqi attacks range from crude devices built by ISIS to more advanced craft flown by the PMF, some of which are supplied by Iran.

In the final stages of the battle against ISIS in 2017, the terrorist group launched armed quadcopter drones, classed as lightweight Group 1 drones by the US military, against Iraqi forces trying to retake the city of Mosul.

The security forces attempted to counter them using the Taiwanese Raysun MD1 system, a jamming device which disrupts the signal between the drone operator and the device.

In June, Balad airbase, which hosted US contractors working with Iraq's air force, came under attack from mortar bombs and drones, an incident some blamed on the PMF. In the same month, security forces outside of Baghdad claimed to have shot down two drones, one of which resembled a system similar to Iranian designs.

In May, explosive drones struck the coalition's sprawling Al Asad base in western Iraq, a US base in Erbil – the capital of Iraq's Kurdish region – and a coalition facility in the Baghdad airport complex.

There were more drone attacks on Al Asad base in June, prompting US air strikes against suspected drone sites on July 27. In December, armed drones were used in an unsuccessful attack on the US consulate in Erbil.

The US has used a range of systems, including the C-Ram system, which can fire 4,500 rounds a minute, and new laser systems to defend joint facilities and its embassy in Baghdad. These are more advanced systems than Iraq's government currently possesses.

Updated: January 03, 2022, 12:17 PM