Horror-struck with Iran’s attack on their military base in Iraq, US soldiers recount how they lost contact with their state-of-the-art unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the sky as the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) targeted the site in retaliation for the assassination of its top commander Lieutenant General Qassem Soleimani.
The air base was struck with a barrage of Iranian cruise missiles early on January 8, over the assassination of the commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force in a US airstrike in Baghdad.
At the time the attack was launched, the US army was flying seven UAVs, including MQ-1C Gray Eagles, over Iraq to monitor bases where US-led coalition forces are deployed, AFP said in a report on Wednesday.
Having received advance warning from superiors, most of the 1,500 US soldiers at the base had been hidden in bunkers for two hours, but 14 pilots had stayed in containers-turned-cockpits to remotely fly the American drones and “monitor essential feeds from their high-powered cameras,” according to the report.
One of the pilots, 26-year-old Staff Sergeant Costin Herwig who was flying a Gray Eagle, told AFP that he “accepted fate” after volleys of Iranian missiles poured on the air base, with the first missile blasting dust into their shelter.
“We thought we were basically done,” he said.
The American forces said the volleys of missiles lasted for three hours, slamming into sleeping quarters directly adjacent to the pilots’ operations rooms and inflicting damage on fiber lines, thus disrupting communication with the drones.
The fiber lines link the virtual cockpits to antennas then satellites that send signals to the Gray Eagles and pull the cameras’ feeds back onto the screens at Ain al-Assad, according to the soldiers.
“No more than a minute after the last round hit, I was heading over to the bunkers on the far back side and saw the fire was burning all through our fiber lines,” said First Sergeant Wesley Kilpatrick, adding, “With the fiber lines burnt, there was no control.”
The Iranian ballistic missiles had also punched holes across Ain al-Assad’s airfield and the control tower was empty, the report said.
The soldiers of “the besieged teams” at the base could not locate the drones after the attack and were left in dark both in the air and on the ground, not knowing whether one of their drones had been shot down, it added.
“It’s a pretty big deal, because it’s so expensive and there’s a lot of stuff on them (drones) that we don’t want other people to have or the enemy to get,” said Herwig.
A single Gray Eagle costs around $7 million, 2019 army budget estimates show.
Despite reports of extensive damage at the base, US President Donald Trump claimed last Wednesday that only minimal damage was sustained at the base. He also said that no Americans were harmed in the attack.
“All of our soldiers are safe and only minimal damage was sustained at our military bases. Our great American forces are prepared for anything,” he said in an address to the nation from the White House.
“No Americans were harmed in last night’s attack,” he said, adding, “We suffered no casualties.”
Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei said Iran’s missile attack was just “a slap.”
“The talk of revenge and such debates are a different issue. For now, a slap was delivered on their face last night,” Ayatollah Khamenei said in remarks broadcast live on national television on January 8.
“What is important about confrontation is that the military action as such is not sufficient. What is important is that the seditious American presence in the region must end,” he said to chants of “Death to America” by an audience in Tehran.