Counter-Terrorism: C-RAM Deja Vu

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July 25, 2020: In early July 2020 the United States placed a C-RAM (Counter-Rocket, Artillery and Mortar) system in the Baghdad Green Zone, near the American compound. On July 5th the C-RAM thwarted a 107mm rocket attack. Iraqi security forces found and seized some 107mm rockets set up to be fired at the Green Zone.

These rocket attacks on the Green Zone have been particularly frequent in the last year with nearly 40 rocket and mortar attacks on the Green Zone and a few other Iraqi bases where U.S. troops are stationed. These attacks cause few casualties because the bases, including the Green Zone, are large areas and monitored by radars that can detect and calculate where mortar or rockets are being fired from. Iraqi security forces have become more effective at finding these firing positions before they are used that the rockets are often set up and fired remotely to reduce the risk of the pro-Iran forces involved getting caught.

The increase in these attacks is an act of desperation by Iran, which has been losing support in Iraq, where a majority of the population has always been wary of Iranian military activity inside Iraq. The Iranians were welcomed in 2014 when they sent trainers and advisors to organize Shia militias to fight the ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) invasion that seized a third of the country in a few months. ISIL was largely gone from Iraq by late 2017 and since then the pro-Iran militias have been regarded as more of a threat, especially since Iran ordered its forces to attack anti-Iran Iraqis as well as Americans.

These Iranian rockets are unguided and often misfire and land in residential areas outside the Green Zone, causing civilian casualties. There is lots of open space in the Green Zone. This is a 10 square kilometer (four square mile) government reservation in downtown Iraq. Because of the heavy security this has long been a sanctuary for Americans and senior Iraqi officials. Most Baghdad residents wanted the Green Zone gone, especially because of the way it disrupts major traffic patterns. The zone was supposed to be eliminated after the Americans left in 2011. Rich and powerful Iraqis wanted to live in the Green Zone, as protection from criminals and terrorists, both of whom murder, kidnap and rob the rich. Because of that the Green Zone lives on under Iraqi management. From 2010 to 2019 there have been occasional rockets or mortar shells fired into the Green Zone.

The recent rocket attacks came from areas controlled by an Iran-backed militia and narrowed down the area Iraqi forces had to search to find launch sites or bases of groups responsible. Iran officially condemns the rocket attacks especially despite the fact that fragments of the rockets are collected and easily identified as Iranian made and commonly used by groups Iran supports throughout the region. That’s the kind of proxy war Iran prefers.

The most active of these pro-Iran groups proxies are Kataeb Hezbollah and a few notoriously pro-Iran PMF militias. Over a dozen attacks since January have been publicized by Iran as efforts to kill Americans to avenge their patron Soleimani, a Quds Force general killed by an American UAV attack outside Baghdad airport in January 2020. Soleimani was responsible for organizing anti-American attacks in Iraq and Syria. The loss of Soleimani was a major blow to Iran and the inability to carry out damaging anti-American attacks in Iraq increases the Iranian frustration.

C-RAM was an American system which first showed up in Iraq in 2006, left in 2011 and returned in 2020. Officially its name is Centurion, but hardly anyone uses that name. C-RAM is a modified land-based version of the U.S. Navy Phalanx anti-missile system. It weighs 27 tons and is transported by a large flatbed tractor-trailer. At sea Phalanx is the last line of defense against anti-ship missiles. C-RAM was first created to defend American bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Several foreign nations have since bought C-RAM and users are satisfied with its performance. C-RAM works 24/7 and needs a lot of maintenance. Often civilians (usually retired sailors with Phalanx experience) are hired to operate and maintain C-RAM systems. Phalanx is used by sixteen other navies besides the American fleet so many nations have personnel familiar with Phalanx and this inclined to purchase C-RAM. In 2008 a more mobile C-RAM on a heavy truck with a power supply so that this C-RAM was a more mobile system that could be quickly moved around and put to work quickly.

C-RAM, like other similar systems, is basically the Phalanx naval gun system with new software that enables it to take data from its own, or other radar systems and shoot down just about any kind of artillery shell or rocket within range. Phalanx uses high explosive 20mm shells that detonate near the target, spraying it with fragments. By the time these fragments reach the ground they are generally too small to injure anyone. Phalanx fires shells at the rate of 75 per second. Another advantage of C-RAM is that it makes a distinctive noise when firing, warning people nearby that a mortar or rocket attack is underway, giving them an opportunity to duck inside if they are out and about.

The first C-RAM was sent to Iraq in late 2006 to protect the Green Zone. It was found that C-RAM could knock down 70-80 percent of the rockets and mortar shells fired within range of its cannon and that success rate has gone up because of hardware and software tweaks as well as operator experience. Other improvements included the ability to detect low altitude (flat trajectory) rockets and home-made rockets that are not as predictable as factory made stuff. Since 2006 C-RAM has also become more effective because of improvements in the radars, heat sensors as well as the fire-control software.

The first C-RAM systems in Iraq intercepted several hundred rockets or mortar shells aimed at the Green Zone and other bases. Not bad, since C-RAM only took about a year to develop. A C-RAM system, which can cover an area about four kilometers wide costs $15 million.

The German MANTIS (Modular, Automatic and Network capable Targeting and Interception System) system was based on the C-RAM experience but evolved into evolve into a similar system using components developed in Europe. MANTIS and entered service three years after C-RAM. Germany sent its MANTIS C-RAM system to Afghanistan and in 2018 it was sent to guard a peacekeeper base in Mali. Islamic terrorists there have taken to firing rockets and mortar shells at this camp.

MANTIS was developed from the Skyshield 35 anti-aircraft system. The first unit was ready in 2011 for service in Afghanistan. MANTIS has a radar and control unit linked with two separate 35 mm/1000 KDG autocannon that could swivel quickly to face a target. When turned on the radar detects and identifies likely targets and then, when those were 3,000 meters away one or both 35mm autocannon fired bursts of 12-24 shells which have proximity fuzes and automatically exploded near the target. Each 35mm ABM-KETF shell disperses 152 tiny (3.3 g each or 8.5 per ounce) tungsten rods that formed a cloud and disabled any shell or rocket passing through.  All this takes a few seconds and it worked reliably, after a few tweaks, before it got to Afghanistan. There is also a ship based system similar to the American Phalanx. The 35mm shell used by MANTIS has about 50 percent more range (3,000 meters) than Phalanx but that does not seem to make much difference.

 


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