Washington (CNN)President Joe Biden’s decision to conduct airstrikes against Iran-backed militia groups on the Iraq-Syria border Sunday night follows a recent spate of attacks against US military assets in Iraq by a new class of Iranian-made drones that US officials say can evade US surveillance and defenses.
The latest of these attacks occurred earlier this month when an armed drone detonated at a dining facility at a key entry point in the Baghdad airport used by American soldiers and diplomats, a US military official told CNN. In April, a drone damaged a CIA drone hanger near Erbil.
The American airstrikes Sunday night hit operational and weapons storage facilities at two locations in Syria and one in Iraq, according to the Pentagon, targets that were “selected because these facilities are utilized by Iran-backed militias that are engaged in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attacks against U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq.”
For months, US intelligence and military personnel in Iraq have been raising alarms about the risk to American forces from these newer, more sophisticated Iranian-made drones. Rather than being guided by a pilot from a remote location, some of these small, fixed-wing drones use GPS navigation, making them far less visible to US surveillance systems and impervious to jamming.
“Suffice it to say the (CIA) is now paying a great deal of attention to this issue, because those things tend to wake you up a little bit,” said one former intelligence official with experience in the region.
While rocket attacks against US personnel in Iraq have become alkmost routine, these new Iranian-made drones, so-called suicide drones, are viewed by US intelligence and military personnel as a clear escalation by Iran — and a worrying signal to intelligence officials that the US no longer enjoys autonomy in the skies over Iraq.
New drone technology
Packed with explosives, the new drones come in varying sizes — anywhere from a five-foot wingspan to a 12 to 15 feet, according to one US military official — with the larger iterations carrying up to 30 kilograms of explosives.
That’s far smaller and less lethal than the American-made MQ-9 Reaper drones. But current and former officials say these new Iranian-made drones pose a unique threat in part because Tehran has no deniability — since no one else is known to have the technology. Unlike the more commonly-available Katyusha rockets often fired at US troops in Iraq, US officials say there’s no question that Iran is providing them to the complex web of militia groups who seek to oust the United States from Iraq.
They are also substantially more dangerous, these sources say.
“Someone could get killed, and more so than in the past, because things are accurate,” said one US military official who spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity. “We think they’re actually aiming them — and the warheads on these things are pretty substantial.”
Critical for officials tracking the threat from these new drones is that many use GPS to find their target, making them much harder to defend against.
“What we used to do in the past is try to jam the link between the person flying it and the aircraft or take it over,” the former intelligence official told CNN. “That is still what we try to do, but … now they just send it to a GPS. There’s no link, there’s nothing to jam, there’s nothing to take over.”
It also “makes them less visible,” that person said. “If they’re talking to somebody
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