The Iranian missile strike on Al-Assad air base in January marked the first time in history that U.S. forces have been on the receiving end of a large-scale, long-range, precision-guided missile attack. Buried beneath the headlines, there is a hard truth that Department of Defense officials, Congress, and the American public must acknowledge: the monopoly on precision-guided munitions—and the “American way of war” that has enabled unfettered freedom of action since the end of the Cold War—is officially dead. This unprecedented attack on deployed U.S. troops should serve as a wake-up call, forcing leaders to address vulnerable basing postures in the Middle East and other contested regions.
Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has operated under the assumption that it could access and utilize bases worldwide—at a time and place of its own choosing—unmolested in times of crisis or war. Without the threat of reciprocity, the military could assemble large forces nearby and conduct undisrupted operations throughout the spectrum of military conflict.
This presumption held true as the U.S. military shifted focus to small, asymmetric conflicts and counter-terrorism following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Department of Defense invested in bases that facilitated the rapid employment of precision guided munitions, or PGMs, in assumed uncontested environments. The publically available post-strike satellite imagery of U.S. forces operating from Al-Assad—displaying UAVs, helicopters, and facilities exposed in plain sight—is indicative of this posture. Potential adversaries—including Iran—have long taken note.
Of the more than 60,000 U.S. troops currently deployed to the Middle East, most operate from headquarters at nearby bases in countries such as Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar. Many of these facilities, such as the Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid, house ever-growing concentrations of U.S. forces performing various non-combat support activities from highly centralized locations.