on the hill

CENTCOM commander warns about Iranian drone threat during House hearing

'For the first time since the Korean War, we are operating without complete air superiority,' warned CENTCOM Commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP

Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, left, commander, U.S. Africa Command, and Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., commander, U.S. Central Command, talk before the House Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday, April 20, 2021.

In a stunning admission on Tuesday, the Marine Corps general heading the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) disclosed in a House Armed Services Committee hearing that, based on the threat of Iranian drones, “for the first time since the Korean War, we are operating without complete air superiority.”

Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of CENTCOM, which oversees the Middle East, Central Asia and parts of South Asia, repeatedly emphasized the danger to U.S. forces and partners in the Middle East posed by small and medium-sized armed Iranian drones, which have been used for both surveillance and attacks. 

“We still have a ways to go to get on the right side of the curve [on small armed drones] because right now you can go out and buy one at Walmart or some other location, you can weaponize it very readily,” McKenzie told the committee hearing. “Sometimes it is very difficult for us to detect them until it is too late. We have a variety of systems that we’re testing now in a free market competition to find the best and most integrated capabilities. We are not there yet, and it remains a very concerning priority of mine.”

However, the CENTCOM commander said that the U.S.’s MQ9 Reaper drones, which first entered combat in the mid 2000s, have proven to be a critical and highly effective deterrent against Iranian attacks.

“What we have found is that, particularly against Iran, they do not like their activities to be exposed,” he said. “In the summer of 2019, we believe we stopped several imminent attack strains from ships at sea simply by positioning MQ9s overhead so that they could hear them operating.”

Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-TN), one of the committee members who questioned McKenzie on the issue of Iranian drones, praised the general for prioritizing the issue.

“I am glad to hear that General McKenzie is taking the threat of Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles seriously,” DesJarlais said. “We need to ensure that the U.S. Army has every resource available to swiftly develop technology to detect UAVs and take back complete air superiority. Iran poses a great threat to our closest ally, Israel, and we must make their protection our top priority.”

Jonathan Ruhe, the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s director of foreign policy, agreed with McKenzie that the U.S. must move to fill the gaps in its defenses against Iranian drones.

“The development and proliferation of these UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] is a key element of Iran’s larger effort to counter and overwhelm advanced defenses around the region, including ultimately Israel’s, with swarms of precision munitions like drones and missiles,” Ruhe said. “The United States needs to work with its regional allies to develop a theater air defense network that can counter Tehran’s growing ability to hold the Middle East hostage with these weapons.”

Amanda Dory, the acting undersecretary of defense for policy, elaborated on the Biden administration’s Iran policy, which has put the Defense Department in the lead on addressing Iran’s non-nuclear malign activity, while the State Department leads diplomatic effort to curb the regime’s nuclear program.

“There’s a very important role for the department with respect to the range of allies and partners in the region, to backstop them, to have forces on the ground working to advise, train and assist with the different partners,” Dory told the committee. “Each partnership has its own character and quality but the combination of the force presence, the ability to provide the president with options in the event those are required — those are the fundamental roles of the department at this point.”

McKenzie said the U.S. sale of F-35s to the United Arab Emirates, a Trump administration-era deal that Biden had temporarily put on hold but approved last week, is a part of that strategy.

“One of the key aspects to deterring Iran is an international community that is devoted to that deterrence. Iran has no friends. What we have is lots of friends,” McKenzie said. “One of the things for supporting our friends in the region is to give them the best capability that we can afford to give them, consistent with the other requirements, such as reassurance of Israel… But I think that is a good capability and [the sale] will stand us in good stead with our friends in UAE.”

The sale faces continuing opposition from Senate Democrats, including moderates like Sens. Mark Kelly (D-AZ), Ron Wyden (D-WA) and Jon Tester (D-MT), whose spokespeople told JI this week that they have ongoing concerns despite the Biden administration’s green light.

“Senator Kelly supports a strong security relationship with the UAE to counter Iranian aggression and Chinese and Russian influence, and he supports finding an agreement on the F-35, however he has concerns about protecting its technology from adversaries and would like to see a clear plan to do so,” a Kelly spokesperson told JI on Tuesday.

Members of Congress also questioned the military leaders on the Pentagon’s recent move to transfer Israel from European Command’s area of responsibility to CENTCOM. McKenzie explained that the decision was based on practical realities on the ground, despite the Jewish state’s close partnerships with European nations and NATO.

“Over the next several months we will work a careful plan to integrate Israel into the Central Command [area of responsibility] while preserving their unique nature and their unique ties back into Western Europe,” McKenzie said. “The movement into the Central Command simply reflects an operational fact that’s been in existence for some time. We work closely with them every day. Now we’ll have not a divided responsibility for, but rather a single responsibility for it.”

The administration’s commitment to Israel’s security “remains ironclad,” Dory added.

Michael Makovsky, the president and CEO of JINSA, hailed the move and said it could facilitate the replenishment of the U.S. weapons stockpile in Israel.

“The logical next move following the Abraham Accords has been to transfer Israel to CENTCOM’s AOR, enabling Israel to be far more integrated in CENTCOM’s planning and operations and coordinate closer with our Arab allies — a win for America, Israel and the Arabs,” Makovsky told JI. “Indeed, this is especially important given that Israel has been in the vanguard of rolling back Iranian expansion in the region, which threatens all our Arab allies as well, even as America retrenches.”

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