US wants GCC to share defence data

A US commander is 'very optimistic' about a shared early warning network, but regional military experts wonder about practicalities.

ABU DHABI // A top US official said yesterday he has discussed with GCC officials the possibility of setting up a shared early warning system and enhancing the region's ballistic-missile deterrence. "I am attempting to organise a regional integrated air and missile defence capability with our GCC partners," said Lt Gen Michael Hostage, commander of the US Air Force Central Command.

But some military officials from the region questioned the benefits of such an arrangement. Retired Gen Khalid al Buainnain, the former chief of the UAE Armed Forces, said GCC states were asking such questions as: "What are the benefits? Why would they need a new partner since they have their own capabilities?" The GCC states established a telecommunication network in 2001 linking their military headquarters but have not integrated their air and missile defence systems.

During a conference on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance organised by the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis (Inegma), experts urged the GCC states yesterday to upgrade into a real-time, data-sharing system. If a Gulf nation were attacked, the current system known as Hizam al Taawun, or HAT would allow military officers to communicate only verbally. Lt Gen Hostage said he is hoping to connect the electronic systems, as well, so that data can be shared instantly among the Gulf countries and the US bases in the region.

But Gulf military sources have said the US had not made a concrete offer in terms of sharing data, and that the US would be the only beneficiary of the new early warning capabilities the Gulf nations have acquired at high cost, mostly from US firms. When asked whether the US early warning systems in the region were enough to cover the whole region or would need to tap into the resources of other countries in the region, Lt Gen Hostage responded: "I see all I need to see. My GCC partners see much of what they need to see. I can offer them more."

Saudi Arabia and the UAE both have already acquired an advanced early warning system. These systems cover large areas of the region, and some experts hope to see that data instantly shared among the Gulf countries. "The Gulf states have already built the backbone of the communication system to serve their own interests," said Gen al Buainnain. "Including a seventh party would need the agreement of all members of the GCC."

Lt Gen Hostage said, however, he was "very optimistic" that the Gulf states would work with the US on organising a missile defence system "as quickly as possible". Officials and experts agreed yesterday that speeding the creation of a data-sharing network was essential to addressing increasing threats. India, Iran, Israel and Pakistan all have stockpiles of ballistic missiles that could reach the Gulf region.

Dr Mustafa Alani, a senior adviser and security programme director at the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai, has said the prospects of creating an integrated early warning system were slim. "There is no agreement to buy a similar system, systems that can speak to each other," he said in an interview. "The question is, who is going to have the command? It's a question of trust: can I trust to share information and put my system in the hand of other states?"

Lt Gen Hostage said, however, there was no need to have a central command and that every country would simply connect its capabilities with neighbouring states. "Every nation will have their own command centre defending their nation," he said. No one is going to command the other." mhabboush@thenational.ae