US is keen to boost its role as a trusted partner in the region, official says

Senior American defence official highlights plans and concerns on sidelines of Abu Dhabi defence expo

Stanley Brown, principal deputy assistant secretary for the US Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, at Idex in Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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A senior American defence official has said aerial threats to Washington's allies in the Middle East are “very much of concern”.

Stanley Brown, principal deputy assistant secretary in the US Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, spoke to The National on the sidelines of the International Defence Exhibition in Abu Dhabi.

He highlighted Iran's move to supply drones for Russia's war effort in Ukraine and “attacks in the past” in the region.

Three people died and six were wounded in air strikes carried out by Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi rebels on an oil distribution plant in the Mussaffah area of Abu Dhabi in January last year.

Several further attempted rocket and drone strikes were intercepted.

America will have the backs of our friends in the region
Stanley Brown, principal deputy assistant secretary for the US Bureau of Political-Military Affairs

A spate of missile and drone attacks have also been launched by the Houthis on Saudi Arabia in recent years.

In July, the UN said missiles used by the Houthis to attack Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia were of Iranian origin

“Threats to countries from the air in this region from different systems are very much of concern,” said Mr Brown.

“We have seen attacks in the past, and also Iran’s provision of drones to the fight in Ukraine.

“As this region continues to build relationships to provide arms, there will be more competition in this space.

“Russia will have supply chain issues, but retain an ability to furnish arms in some ways.”

Iran’s air force, made up mostly of pre-revolution aircraft from the 1970s, is to be beefed up by Su-35 Flanker Russian fighter jets as part of several arms deals.

Idex Day 2 — in pictures

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said in December that a partnership between Iran and Russia to produce drones would be harmful not only to Ukraine but to Iran's neighbours and the wider international community.

Mr Kirby said that Iran had become “Russia's top military backer”, adding that the two nations were seeking to collaborate in weapons development and training.

In February, American defence officials sought to dispel any doubt that Iran was supplying drones for Russia’s war in Ukraine, releasing photos and analysis of unmanned aircraft being used in the conflict to demonstrate Tehran’s involvement.

The growing influence from Russia — and China — in the ever-shifting dynamics of Middle East diplomacy has made regional co-operation as important as ever, Mr Brown said.

“We will continue to work hard as we have the best capability, and our provision of arms is not just of a transactional nature, but to build the long-term partnerships that go with that,” he said.

“The US has been engaged in this region for a long time, as the President recently stated — America will have the backs of our friends in the region and we will continue to discuss a wide range of security issues with multiple partners.”

Dr Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the US was playing a key role in assisting Gulf partners in bolstering their defences against air attacks.

“At this point, the Saudi Arabian air defences facing Yemen are some of the most experienced in the world, rivalled only by Ukraine and Israel. The US is already tightly involved in co-ordinating Gulf radars and missile defence and training and assisting Gulf air defence operators to intercept effectively.”

US boosts ties in the region

A clear sign of strengthening US relations in the region was Operation Juniper Oak in late January, the largest US-Israel partnered military exercise in history.

The live fire exercise in Israel and the Mediterranean included naval operations by the George H W Bush carrier strike group, integrated bomber fighter missions, combat search and rescue and close air support to demonstrate US capability to rapidly deploy heavy firepower to the region, if needed.

Discussions to build on plans for a Middle East Security Alliance to bring more military unity between a number of regional countries have long since faded after the Trump presidency.

While an "Arab Nato" may be no longer an option, greater collaboration for a regional air defence system was something that should be considered in the face of a rising aerial threat from Iran, said Mr Brown.

“We are seeing this region needing systems to protect and defend itself from the kind of attacks it has had [in the past],” he said.

“A lot of that rests on a universal requirement for air defence systems."

Regardless of the country concerned, the kind of protective capabilities that are needed are very much the same, Mr Brown said.

“A universal plan to help and assist in defence would be built on things that we already have here, that we know we can deliver.

“That is not only to protect the territory here in the Middle East, but also the tens of thousands of Americans living here.”

Updated: February 21, 2023, 1:43 PM