ABU DHABI // Emirati and American generals identified the spread of ballistic missiles as a critical threat to national security, with some advocating a Gulf-wide missile defence shield yesterday.
Military officials say a missile defence system in the Gulf would counter the spread of ballistic missiles among regimes in the Middle East and Asia and the possible acquisition of missile technology by extremist groups.
The calls came at a major defence conference in the capital - the second Middle East Missile and Air Defence Symposium, organised by the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (Inegma).
The US has already installed a number of Patriot missile defence systems throughout the Gulf, though the countries in which the system has been deployed have not been officially disclosed.
UAE generals used strong words to describe the threat posed by ballistic missiles.
"The threat of attack by long- range ballistic missiles remains clear," said Major Gen Ali al Ka'abi, the deputy chief of staff of the UAE Armed Forces.
"Theatre ballistic missile capability gives a hostile nation the potential to extend its reach not just over land but over water.
"Many countries have ballistic missiles, some of which are working on weapons of mass destruction like nuclear, chemical or biological. If any of these weapons were launched, thousands, or even millions, of lives could be lost.
"We must be prepared to defend our people, our nation and our region against any emerging threat."
The UAE is ahead of its Gulf neighbours in buying systems that shoot down missiles. A deal on purchasing the Terminal High Altitude Air Defence system worth almost US$7 billion (Dh25.7bn) is expected to be finalised early next year. And the first unit of a Patriot missile defence system is expected to be deployed by 2012.
The UAE and the US have established a missile defence training centre at Al Bateen Air Base.
Military officials are billing the base as a training centre similar in quality to the Air Warfare Centre in Al Dhafra Air Base, which has emerged as a premier training facility for fighter pilots in the region.
The idea is for countries in the region to build up national missile defences and make them compatible, allowing them to share data on possible threats and, in the event of an attack, missile trajectory.
Iran has developed its missile capabilities in recent years, expanding its inventory, and Israel has missile technology while Hizbollah used missiles in its war with Israel in 2006.
The region experienced the threat of ballistic missiles first hand during the Iraq-Iran war when Iraq launched Scud missiles against Iranian civilian targets, and in the first Gulf War, when Iraq fired ballistic missiles towards Saudi Arabia and Israel in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait.
But missile defence needs a high level of co-operation, said Gen James Mattis, the commander of US Central Command in the region.
He gave a dramatic example of why co-operation was needed."If a missile is launched, it may fly over the airspace of two countries in the region before it gets to a third country," he said. "If there was ever a reason for collaboration among states, this is it."
Missile defence can act as a deterrent against those who would attack the region. "If the nation knows if it launches a missile it will not get through, then the reason for launching that missile is reduced," Gen Mattis said.
Ballistic missiles are changing the security landscape in the region, said Major Gen Ibrahim al Alawi, the deputy commander of UAE Air Force and Air Defence. "Ballistic and cruise missiles are no longer the preserve of sophisticated military powers," he said. States who possess it can use it for "political leverage on neighbours without the capability to defend themselves".
"In short, ballistic missiles represent a significant threat to the UAE and its allied forces in the region," he said. "It remains critical that we protect our homeland's critical assets.
"Missile defence is a must for our national defence as well as for the Arabian Gulf region's security and stability," he said, adding that data exchange was necessary as well.
Experts argue the risk of extremist groups acquiring advanced missiles make co-operation necessary.
"Huge efforts have been done to improve the interoperability between the GCC," said Khalid al Bu-Ainnain, the former commander of the UAE Air Force and President of Inegma, including an integrated air defence system since 2003.
"Threats come from east and west," said Riad Kahwaji, the chief executive of Inegma, identifying Israel and Iran as nations that operate ballistic missiles.
The technology and know-how has also spread, and cruise missiles come in various sizes that can make it easier for extremists to use them. "Terrorist groups could get a hold of one or two and be able to launch them from small boats," he said. "That possibility is there."
Al Bateen centre billed as top training facility
A new missile defence training centre in the capital is being billed as a top facility to train military leaders and soldiers in missile attack scenarios, officials say.
In March, the UAE agreed to host the International Air and Missile Defence Centre at Al Bateen Air Base in Abu Dhabi.
The centre will offer training in missile defence systems, battle scenarios and complex exercises including attack operations and defence against missile attacks.
It will allow the UAE to build partnerships with regional allies, like GCC countries, and the US through opening up the centre to take in trainees from other countries in the region.
It will also plan academic seminars and training exercises against aircraft and cruise and ballistic missiles, and carry out reviews of combat strategies after the training is complete, said Brig Gen David Mann, the commander of the 32nd Army Air and Missile Defence Command of the US Army.
The equipment needed for the centre's "Battle Labs", the nerve centre for simulated training scenarios, has already been purchased.
The centre's facilities are expected to be ready by February and Falcon Shield, the first available training regimen, will begin training personnel in March.
Twenty personnel from the UAE and US will staff the centre in the next 90 days.