Drone attacks in U.S. facilities abroad are becoming increasingly frequent, raising questions about anti-drone, anti-aircraft, and anti-missile security and bringing to the fore systems like the C-RAM.
It was only last month when the issue of air defense was highlighted by tensions in Israel and Gaza between the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the Hamas terrorist group. Hamas launched thousands of rockets into Israel, with the Iron Dome system making headlines with its impressive interception rates.
Although the Iron Dome is very useful and effective, it comes with a high price tag and is also less maneuverable than other weapon systems, like the C-RAM, which has a much shorter range but is extremely effective within in. The Iron Dome can intercept inbound munitions at ranges in excess of forty miles, but the C-RAM specializes in closer engagements in the 1-5 nautical mile range.
An Emerging Threat From Above
Earlier in June, an unidentified drone attacked a U.S. compound inside the International Baghdad Airport in Iraq, causing damage to the facility and minor injuries to personnel. Although the perpetrators are still unknown, Iran and its proxies in the country are most likely behind the attack. The U.S. government is offering a $3 million bounty for information that will result in finding the attackers. But that wasn’t the first drone attack in the region.
In April, a drone attacked a U.S. intelligence facility located in Erbil’s international airport, again causing some damage. And in May two attacks against a U.S. drone facility and a compound used by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) fueled concerns about the Iranian drone capabilities and Iran’s apparent willingness to use them against U.S. and Coalition targets in the region.
According to the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), in the last two years alone, Iran-backed militias have launched more than 300 attacks on U.S. targets in the region, killing four Americans and 25 locals.
Terrorist groups and non-state actors that have used drones in the past and continue to have the capability include the Afghan Taliban, Lebanese Hezbollah, Yemeni Houthis, Palestinian Hamas, Islamic State, and Boko Haram. Some of these groups are guided by state actors, such as Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, amplifying their effectiveness and danger.
“Since 2020, Kataib Hizballah and other Iran-backed militias have threatened Iraqi government and security officials that they perceive to be supporting the United States or activities against militia interests,” the DIA report stated.
“In 2020, there was a significant increase in the threat to U.S. interests in Iraq from Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias seeking to secure a U.S. drawdown. The surge was fueled in part by the January 2020 strike that killed IRGC-QF Commander Qasem Soleimani and Popular Mobilization Committee (PMC) Chief of Staff AbuMahdi al-Muhandis and the perception that political efforts to remove U.S. forces were stagnating.”
C-RAM: A Weapon straight out of Star Wars
The Counter-Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar (C-RAM) weapons system fires the M61 Vulcan 20mm cannon, which has an impressive ability to shoot 4,500 rounds per minute. Mounted on a swiveling base, the C-RAM’s cannon is guided and controlled by radar. Although, as the name suggests, the C-RAM was developed to shoot down incoming rockets, artillery shells, and mortar rounds, it can as easily target remotely-piloted and piloted aircraft that come within range.
Affectionally named “R2-D2” by troops because of its resemblance to the likable Star Wars robot, the C-RAM is a sight to behold when in action. Its bursts of fire look like a fiery belt and the noise resembles a chainsaw. It fires 20mm High Explosive Incendiary Tracer-Self Destruct (HEIT-SD) rounds that destroy themselves after a certain range in order not to come back down on the ground and cause unintended damage (the C-RAM often operates close to urban areas). Usually, the C-RAM is mounted on top of a trailer and can be fired remotely, offering an extra layer of protection for its crew.
The C-RAM’s potent radar can detect, evaluate, track, and engage a target. The radar system can even support battle-damage assessments afterward.
The C-RAM is operated by the U.S. Army, but the U.S. Navy has a similar weapons system to protect its ships. The Phalanx CIWS is the naval version of the C-RAM and is mounted on ships as part of the anti-aircraft umbrella of the vessel or a fleet. Like the Army iteration, the Phalanx can target inbound munitions or aircraft, but it can also target and destroy small boats. The CIWS is quite popular around the world, with several allied navies using it. The only major difference between the C-RAM and the CIWS is the type of ammunition they use, with the former using the 20mm HEIT-SD round and the latter the standard Tungsten slugs.
The C-RAM is deployed across the Middle East and southwest Asia, including Iraq and Afghanistan, to protect U.S. bases from incoming attacks. Although not as fancy as the Iron Dome and less effective at long distances, the C-RAM is a potent weapons system that can make all the difference.