Iranian Missile Attacks Offer Insights Into Tehran’s Intentions, Capabilities

Iran fired missiles at two U.S. bases in Iraq on Jan. 8, setting off a wave of speculation in the American media. Now that the dust has settled, analyzing the strikes can provide important insights into Iran’s intentions and capabilities—and how the United States should respond.

In
the immediate aftermath of the attacks, many commentators were quickly bogged
down by the question of whether the Iranian strikes were meant to be precise.

Many
experts cited the (presumed) Iranian strike against Saudi oil
infrastructure in September as an example of precision, then concluded that
Iran’s attack against the two bases was also a precision strike, carefully
calibrated to avoid casualties.

Yet
these reports largely overlooked the difference between cruise missiles—which Iran
possesses in large numbers—and ballistic missiles, which were actually used in
the attack.

In
general, Iranian ballistic missiles simply aren’t that accurate. Those fired at
the bases could have landed on parking lots, warehouses, or even outside the
facility entirely. Four of the 16 missiles fired failed to even hit their
targets.

Cruise
missiles, on the other hand, are far more sophisticated. Their advanced
guidance technology makes them highly maneuverable, allowing them to evade radar
detection and strike targets far more precisely.

Still,
this distinction shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the facts of the case.

Yes,
Iran fired missiles at U.S. positions. But the Iranians avoided taking more
provocative action, such as launching precision strikes. At the end of the day,
all parties involved were lucky that no one was hurt or killed.

U.S.
early-warning systems greatly assisted in preventing American or Iraqi
casualties.

Ultimately,
whether the missiles were accurate or not, their use sheds significant light on
Iran’s intentions and capabilities.

First, on the most basic level, the attack demonstrates not only that Iran has missiles, but that the nation is both willing to fire them and continues to develop them. That reality should encourage America’s strategic partners to begin thinking seriously about how to counter Iran’s behavior and strategic objectives.

Second, Iran’s military capabilities vary markedly in quality across its different programs.

For
example, Iran’s air force is largely ineffective, relying heavily on outdated
Soviet and American fighters. The Iranian navy is similarly ill-equipped,
except for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ patrol boats equipped with
anti-ship missiles.

But
Iran also boasts a number of more impressive programs. Its cyber capabilities, its
ability to refine uranium, and a large and growing missile inventory need to be
taken seriously.

Third,
having a capability and having the ability to effectively employ it are two
different things.

U.S.
forces possess world-class surveillance, detection, tracking, and reporting
systems. Not only do these systems help the American military protect its
assets, but they also ensure that such assets are much more effective.  

Though
Iran does possess a huge missile arsenal, its failed strike last week—and incidental
attack on Ukrainian Flight
752—suggest that the nation still lacks the ability to use its weapons effectively.

But
that doesn’t mean we should let our guard down. Instead, the Iranian attacks
demonstrate that the United States should maintain a robust defense posture.

Despite
some calls from across the political spectrum to decrease military spending, the
U.S. faces threats across the globe,
from rogue states, such as Iran, to ambitious rivals, such as China.

American
forces must remain ready at all times to defend our nation’s interests, to
defend themselves from attack, to counter enemy actions, and to support our
allies and partners. By investing appropriately in defense capabilities, the
U.S. can deter further bad behavior, Iranian or otherwise.