US Defense System ‘Falls Flat’ Against Iranian Suicide Drone In Syria; US Investigates Avengers’ Failure

A key air defense system at a coalition base was reportedly not completely operational when a suspected Iranian drone attacked US forces in Syria on March 23, killing a US contractor and injuring several American soldiers.

On March 24, Iran-backed militias unleashed a barrage of rocket and drone attacks against coalition bases, escalating the conflict in northeast Syria. 

The two attacks on American forces in Syria happened roughly 45 minutes apart. The coalition forces at Mission Support Center Site Conoco were the target of the first attack, which occurred at 10:39 p.m. local time.

In the second assault, three one-way drones attacked Green Village at around 11:23 p.m. local time. Two of the drones were destroyed by allied air defenses. One made it into the compound and damaged one structure. But there were no injuries reported.

The strikes on Friday are the latest in an increasing number of retaliatory actions between the United States and groups backed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The conflict, among the worst in the region since 2019, threatens recent attempts to de-escalate tensions throughout the Middle East. 

US Central Command (CENTCOM) has reported dozens of strikes by IRGC-backed militias targeting US and anti-ISIS coalition forces and installations since 2021. But, this wave of fighting was triggered by the death of a US contractor. Five American service members and another US contractor sustained injuries. 

According to the Pentagon, the casualties resulted from an unmanned aerial vehicle strike on a coalition base of countries fighting the Islamic State in Northeast Syria, close to Hasakah, at around 1:38 p.m. local time on March 23.

A report published by The New York Times on Friday said that a coalition airbase’s primary air defense system was “not fully operational” when the attack occurred.

One US official told the outlet that the base’s Avenger missile defense system might have had maintenance issues during the strike.

US Army soldiers load training versions of the Stinger missile into an Avenger system. US Army

On Friday, Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, the Pentagon’s press secretary, told reporters that the air defense’s radar was working, but refrained from providing any more information due to operational security.

It is uncertain whether the system would have detected the threat even if it had been fully operational because drones and loitering weapons can occasionally function at low altitudes, making it challenging for radar systems to identify them. 

Pentagon and other American officials said they were hesitant to expose any potential gaps or failures in the layered defense system for fear of giving enemies in the region any advantage.

General Ryder said, “We take a variety of measures to safeguard our people. But again, it’s an inherently dangerous place.”

The US intelligence analysts confirmed that the drone involved in the incident was of Iranian origin. General Ryder added that the United States launched airstrikes targeting militant sites associated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The two F-15E multirole aircraft of the US Air Force attacked locations used by IRGC-affiliated groups. Later those groups fired ten rockets at Green Village in northeastern Syria, where coalition forces were stationed.

Avenger Air Defense Systems

Avenger is a short-range air defense (SHORAD) system. The weapon system is meant to defend infantry against drones, cruise missiles, helicopters, and low-flying aircraft using its FIM-92 Stinger missile launchers.

The deployment of this defense system in Syria by US troops was initially reported in late February 2021. Analysts proclaimed that the Avenger could offer ground forces some desperately needed defense against such aerial attacks.

The system, officially known as the AN/TWQ-1, consists of a turret with two Stinger missile launchers that can each fire four rounds at a time and an M3P machine gun that can fire 50 caliber rounds, and a sighting system that comprises an infrared camera, an optical sight, and a laser rangefinder. 

The complete Avenger system can be detached and used from fixed positions. However, it is often carried on the rear of a Humvee. The US has also handed Ukraine this air defense system to counter Russian drone threats.

An Avenger system fires one of its Stinger missiles during a training exercise., US Army

In recent years, non-state groups in Syria and Iraq have dramatically increased their use of lethal and advanced drones. Earlier, the infamous Islamic State (ISIS) group displayed its capacity to turn relatively basic commercial drones into tiny bombers.

Overall, given the aerial threats that American forces are currently facing in Syria, Avengers’ full operating capabilities are essential from an operational and sustainment standpoint.