A tragic mistake
On Sunday, January 28, 2024, a drone strike killed three US Army soldiers and wounded dozens more at a military base in northeastern Jordan, near the border with Syria. The attack was carried out by an enemy drone that was mistaken for a US drone by the American air defenses, according to a preliminary report by the Pentagon.
The enemy drone followed a US drone that was returning to the base, known as Tower 22, and evaded detection by the US sensors and countermeasures. The US troops did not realize the threat until it was too late, and the enemy drone detonated over the living quarters of the base, causing a massive explosion and fire.
The Pentagon has not officially identified the group responsible for the attack, but US officials have blamed Iran-backed militia groups that operate in Syria and Iraq. The attack was the first US fatality after months of strikes against American forces across the Middle East, amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war and the US campaign against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen.
A significant escalation
The drone strike in Jordan was a significant escalation of the situation in the Middle East, where the US and its allies are facing multiple threats and challenges. The attack also exposed the vulnerability of the US forces and bases in the region, which rely on sophisticated but not foolproof air defense systems.
The US has deployed several types of drones in the Middle East, both for surveillance and combat missions. Some of these drones, such as the MQ-9 Reaper, are large and armed with missiles and bombs. Others, such as the RQ-21 Blackjack, are smaller and used for intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance. The enemy drone that attacked Tower 22 was likely a small, low-flying and low-cost drone that could bypass the US radar and jamming systems.
The US has also deployed several types of counter-drone systems in the region, such as the Phalanx Close-In Weapon System (CIWS), which can shoot down incoming rockets, artillery and drones with a rapid-fire 20mm cannon. However, these systems have limitations in terms of range, accuracy and reaction time. The US is also developing and testing new technologies, such as lasers and microwaves, to counter the drone threat.
A precarious situation
The drone strike in Jordan has put renewed pressure on the Biden administration to respond more forcefully to the attacks on US and coalition forces in the region. Since October 17, 2023, there have been 165 attacks on US and coalition forces, mostly in Iraq and Syria, but also in Yemen and Lebanon. These attacks have been attributed to Iran-backed militia groups, such as Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba.
The US has conducted several retaliatory strikes against these groups, targeting their weapons, facilities and leaders. However, these strikes have not deterred the militia groups from continuing their attacks, and have also increased the risk of escalation and confrontation with Iran and its allies. The US has also been trying to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which was abandoned by the Trump administration in 2018, but the negotiations have been stalled by mutual distrust and domestic opposition.
The US is also facing other challenges and threats in the Middle East, such as the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, where the US-backed Saudi-led coalition is fighting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who have been launching drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia and commercial shipping in the Red Sea. The US is also supporting Israel in its conflict with Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, and has been firing rockets and launching incendiary balloons into Israel. The US is also trying to contain the influence and activities of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia and political party that is backed by Iran and Syria, and has been attacking Israel and destabilizing Lebanon.
The US has about 60,000 troops in the Middle East, mostly in Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. The US also has several strategic bases and partnerships in the region, such as Tower 22 in Jordan, al-Tanf Garrison in Syria, al-Asad Air Base in Iraq, al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, and Naval Support Activity Bahrain. The US also has nuclear-capable assets in the region, such as B-52 bombers and submarines.
The US has been trying to reduce its military presence and involvement in the Middle East, and shift its focus and resources to the Indo-Pacific region, where it faces a rising and assertive China. However, the drone strike in Jordan and the other attacks on US and coalition forces have shown that the US cannot ignore the Middle East, and that it needs to balance its interests and commitments in the region with its global strategy and priorities.