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U.S. response after Tower 22 attacks has slowed militias, commander says

The top Air Force official in the Middle East said the U.S. strikes have impacted the Iranian-backed militias' capabilities to launch attacks.
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U.S. officials are seeing a decline in Iranian-backed militia attacks in the Middle East, the lead Air Force commander in the region told reporters Wednesday. (Photo by MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP) (Photo by MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP via Getty Images)

U.S. officials are seeing a decline in Iranian-backed militia attacks in the Middle East, the lead Air Force commander in the region told reporters Wednesday.

Though the threats on troops in Iraq and Syria and commercial ships transiting in the Red Sea are hundreds of miles apart, U.S. retaliation in February against Iranian elements has reduced the fighting strength and arsenals of the militias, said Lt. Gen. Alexus G. Grynkewich, who oversees the air component of U.S. Central Command. 

“They have lost some of their capabilities. We’ve certainly affected their behavior. Their pace of operations is not what it was but the Houthis are certainly capable of still threatening in the Red Sea and we’ll continue to work that,” Grynkewich said.

Grynkewich also said a January attack that killed three U.S. soldiers in Jordan represented a “new and different” tactic by the Iranian militias from previous months.

Attacks decline in March

Grynkewich said that U.S. forces have seen reduced attacks in both the Red Sea and Syria after two large U.S. strikes in February. While the Houthis have continued to launch one-way attack drones in the Red Sea throughout March, their momentum has slowed. In Jordan and Syria, CENTCOM reported no attacks on U.S. troops in March.

“It sends a very clear signal, I think, to the Iranians that they’d crossed the line with the death for American soldiers at Tower 22,” Grynkewich said. “It was the volume and the fact that we were holding Iran directly for account with some of the targets that we went after.”

The threat towards American troops who are stationed in the region for counter-ISIS missions reached a peak in January with a drone attack on service members stationed at Tower 22, a U.S. outpost on the Jordan-Syria border that killed three National Guard soldiers. In response, the U.S., along with partners and allies in the region, struck more than 85 targets linked to militias and Iran’s military, including command and control centers, intelligence facilities and weapons storage facilities used to attack U.S. and coalition forces, according to the Department of Defense.  

The drop in attacks in Syria and Iraq in March marks a major shift from mid-October, when Iranian-backed militias launched a campaign that eventually surpassed 170 attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria. In the same time period, Houthi rebels in Yemen, also backed by Iran, launched over 55 attacks on international ships in the Red Sea. While most of the missiles, drones and rockets launched towards ships or U.S. personnel were shot down, the attacks scrambled both U.S. sentiment on the region and international shipping. 

 Lt. Gen. Alexus G. Grynkewich, who oversees the air component of U.S. Central Command, CENTCOM.

“Their narrative is that this is about Israel and Gaza and the Palestinians but they haven’t supplied a single loaf of bread to help with the humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” Grynkewich said. “To me, this is really about the Houthis wanting to build their own notoriety and their own power base and nothing to do with the situation in Gaza. They’re exploiting the situation for their own ends.” 

But over the last month, there has been a slow down in the number of drones, missiles and rockets launched towards U.S. military assets and commercial ships sailing through local waters. The latest publicly reported incident was on Monday, where the U.S. shot down an unmanned surface vessel in the Red Sea, according to CENTCOM.

The challenge that remains for U.S. officials seeking to deter or prevent future attacks, he said, is figuring out the size of the Houthis weapon supply that they began their attacks with. Since November, the Houthis have expended around 75 missiles, cruise missiles and anti-ship ballistic missiles, according to Grynkewich. 

“We obviously know how much we have striking, we have assessments of how successful those strikes were,” Grynkewich said. However, Iranian resupplies to militias in the region remain a problem.

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“We have seen changes in their behavior – the very large swarms of UASs that they’ve done in the past, they are unable to sustain those regularly,” he said. “With their anti ship ballistic missiles – we don’t know exactly how many they had before the conflict started. We know it was probably dozens, would be the way I’d characterize it. They shot, now, dozens of them, so the rate of resupply is something that we’re trying to understand.” 

Tower 22 attack was ‘new and different’

Despite the slow down in drone, rocket and missile incidents, the U.S. is still learning from its failure to stop the attack on al-Tanf garrison at Tower 22 which Grynkewich described as unexpected.

“We took a close look at what our defensive architecture was, what our assumptions were about where the Iranians were willing to direct the militias to hit us,” he said, adding that an attack on Tower 22 in Jordan “was new and different.” 

He did not give details on CENTCOM’s new security updates and capabilities for the base due to “operational security reasons and to protect our forces that are over there benefiting from any adjustments we might have made.” 

However Grynkewich did give insight into the military’s “layered ISR collection strategy” which has aided in CENTCOM’s preemptive or “self-defense” strikes on Iranian-backed groups. With imagery from national sources like NASA-operated satellites as well as airborne assets like MQ-9 Reaper drones, officials will look for “telltale signs” that something is set up or ready to be launched, he said.

“We kind of pull all that together and then we have a small cell that fuses [data] very rapidly. As tipping and queuing comes in, we can even rapidly re-task assets to take a closer look at it,” he said. “Sometimes that’s backed up by other intelligence that we understand some of the intent behind what we might be seeing.”

The information goes through the Space Force’s battle management command and control network. Data will come from the Air Operations Center, get transmitted to whoever the battle manager is and from there it’ll go to the carrier strike group or be tasked to the airmen. 

Beyond immediate military capabilities, Grynkewich noted that the U.S. is considering all of its options to prevent a longer term conflict, which includes discouraging behavior by exposing information “to embarrass the Iranians.”

“To the extent that you can, you can deter them by saying, ‘Hey, we know that you’re part of this’ – I think that’s a very effective way to address them,” he said. “Obviously, there’s other ways you could do it that get into other highly classified capabilities that we might have that we would use.”

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