NEW YORK // With the dust barely settled after a historic accord to limit Iran’s nuclear programme, the United States has once again begun making the case to its allies in the region about the need for a collective defence system against the threat from Tehran’s conventional weapons, particularly its large arsenal of missiles.
Gulf Arab countries have so far voiced guarded support for the nuclear deal, which will loosen economic and, eventually, military constraints placed on Tehran, but their future policy decisions will be guided by US action to back up promises of increased support through enhanced security cooperation and expedited arms sales.
These moves are aimed at bolstering the Gulf’s ability to defend itself against Iran’s military threat, and with the international embargo on ballistic missile technology scheduled to be lifted in eight years, the most potent of those threats is set to become even more of a strategic challenge.
One of the key components of the US effort is the integration of individual GCC countries’ missile-defence systems into a regional umbrella, which US strategists believe would most effectively deter Iranian missile attacks. The Camp David summit between President Barack Obama and Gulf leaders in May was an opportunity to make progress on this goal, which the US has been pushing for the past two decades with few tangible results.
One day after the deal with Iran was signed on July 14, Mr Obama said he hoped that by the time his successor is elected next year, Washington was “in a conversation with all our partners in the region about how we have strengthened our security partnerships so that they feel they can address any potential threats that may come, including threats from Iran.”
This “includes the work that we’ve done with the GCC up at Camp David, making sure that we execute that”, he said.
The US sees Tehran’s growing arsenal of missiles and its push to refine their accuracy as the greatest threat to Gulf security and core US interests.
“It is increasingly important to think strategically about the deployment of ... missile defence assets in a regional context,” Frank Rose, assistant secretary at the US Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, said in Washington last week.
“Our capabilities are modest relative to the expanding regional missile threat. That is why we are working closely with our allies and partners around the world to encourage strong, cooperative relationships that include appropriate burden-sharing.”
There has been a renewed emphasis on missile-defence integration since world powers signed the interim nuclear agreement with Iran in 2013. It has been at the top of the agenda at high-level ministerial meetings and, at the end of 2013, Mr Obama authorised military sales to the GCC as a bloc to encourage integration, though none have been made so far.
Theoretically, an integrated missile defence would provide the strongest deterrence to Iran, which possesses the largest ballistic missile arsenal in the region.
If Iran’s missiles were rendered ineffective, then the GCC’s more advanced air forces would face little difficulty in striking targets in Iran, which possesses no real air or missile defences or modern air force, though it is negotiating with Russia to buy advanced systems, too.
Integrated missile defences would increase early warning times and allow interceptors to be placed at the most efficient locations. If a missile was aimed at Saudi Arabia, it would make more sense for the radar and interceptor to be placed on the coast of the UAE or Oman, rather than waiting for the Saudi national defences to pick it up. The minuscule reaction times and small margins of error make every second count.
The joint statement issued after the Camp David summit renewed the commitment of both sides to integration. It stated that the US would provide technical assistance in the creation of a ballistic missile early-warning system and a study of GCC defences to facilitate integration. The GCC and US also agreed to conduct missile-defence exercises with senior officials to improve cooperation. Mr Rose, the US state department’s point man on the issue, has visited a number of Gulf capitals in recent weeks to consult officials on how to proceed.
But it remains to be seen whether the Gulf states, who for a number of reasons have resisted integrating their missile defences, will be more willing now to engage multilaterally with the US and overcome the complex variety of hurdles to create a joint defence system.
Some observers say important strategic factors are aligning that could reduce some of the political barriers within the GCC.
Faced with turmoil in the Middle East, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have become much more assertive and less risk averse, and are growing in military competence. Witnessing the disintegration of fellow Arab states has encouraged Gulf leaders and their people towards further regional cooperation, analysts in the region say.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia are members of the US-led anti-ISIL coalition carrying out a campaign of air strikes against the extremist group in Syria. Both countries are also part of the regional coalition spearheaded by Riyadh and backed by the US that has conducted air strikes and a limited ground campaign to push back Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
“What we see occurring now over the last year or two, with all the turmoil in the region and increasing threats, is a new drive to cooperate and coordinate with each other in the GCC,” said Omar Mohamed, a research analyst at the Bahrain Centre for Strategic, International and Energy Studies. “I can’t remember a time when this was the case more than it is right now — there has never been a time when the GCC and its people have felt closer.”
This feeling of unity has created an opening for integration, and in an atmosphere of insecurity defence cooperation may be a more easily attainable objective.
GCC countries understand “they must do better in their efforts to create more collective and coordinated operational defence capabilities, and that they need to really roll up their sleeves and put some elbow grease into this process,” said Danny Sebright, a former policy director in the office of the US secretary of defence and now the president of the US-UAE Business Council, which promotes the two countries’ economic ties. “Whether they’re going to be successful may be a question mark in some people’s minds, but it is the essential task at hand.”
Last year was a historic low point for intra-GCC relations, with a serious rift developing between the UAE and Saudi Arabia on one side against Qatar on the other over the Muslim Brotherhood. But the dual threats of ISIL and Iran have helped overcome some of these political differences. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have also begun to coordinate more closely on their support for rebels in Syria.
“Gone, or at least put aside for the purpose of the [Camp David] summit, was any evidence of divisiveness among the GCC partners regarding the issues at hand,” Mr Sebright said. “Also noticeable as a result of direct discussions by their two leaders at the summit was an apparent new willingness by Qatar and the UAE to work together in a more constructive nature.”
Despite the moment of unity that the growing list of regional threats has created, the complexity of the obstacles to integrating missile defence for six nations is immense.
“The problem again and again is what do you put first, national rivalries or the practical need to really cooperate?” said Anthony Cordesman, an expert on Gulf military affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “Often the GCC countries are not willing to trust each other.”
Fellow GCC states were wary of Saudi Arabian dominance when Riyadh suggested a common security force and a monetary union. The group’s members also do not take a uniform position on Iran, as they all perceive the threat it poses in different ways. A shared missile defence system would entail sharing intelligence and coordination among national security agencies and, in effect, an outsourcing of vital responsibility and suspension of sovereignty that would be difficult for any country to institutionalise. “GCC nations do not agree on what such a system should look like and they do not share nearly enough information,” said Bilal Saab, an expert on the US-Gulf security relationship at the Atlantic Council think tank.
There may also be differences over how to respond to an imminent Iranian missile strike. “One nation’s view of how to escalate rarely matches another’s once a crisis begins,” Mr Cordesman said.
Even if there was agreement on integration, it would not be as simple as coordinating defence purchases. Effective integration also requires the creation of strategic institutions for “thinking collectively about concepts of operations, and tactics, techniques and procedures”, Mr Saab said. “But none of that is happening today”, in Washington or the Gulf.
In part, this is because Gulf countries prefer to engage bilaterally with the US, their most important ally. The UAE and Qatar have both sought to purchase the most advanced US missile defence system, the THAAD, which provides a wide area of protection and can intercept ballistic missiles when they are outside the earth’s atmosphere, making it the best system to defend against chemical, biological or nuclear-equipped missiles. While the sale to Qatar has yet to be finalised, the UAE will reportedly receive the THAAD system by end of this year, making it the first country outside the US to own one. All the GCC countries already own the most advanced version of the Patriot system, the PAC-3, which covers a smaller area and protects specific targets, except for Bahrain, which relies on the Aegis missile defence systems on US ships based in the Gulf.
The countries with advanced capabilities are already integrated to some degree with US naval ships, satellites and other assets, and there is less impetus to work with their neighbours, which they fear will hamper development of their national capabilities.
The challenge for US officials will be balancing the harder work of multilateral development with bilateral engagement.
Derek Collet, a former senior defence official who was involved with GCC-US defence integration until this year, said that “our efforts to work with our Gulf partners to be more interoperable with one another is not in any way trying to supplant the bilateral relationships, but is trying to leverage them so that we can all work together more efficiently and effectively”.
Analysts say GCC countries feel there is an overemphasis by the US on missile-defence integration. Missile defence does nothing to address their top concern — internal and regional threats posed by Iran-allied groups and proxies, Mr Mohamed said.
“It’s great that you want to give us this highly integrated advanced missile system, but we want more guarantees of your commitment. That’s what it boils down to,” said Mr Mohamed. “Sure, the US can say ‘we’ll give you this super-advanced system’ and then say ‘we’re going to draw down our involvement in the region’, but that doesn’t solve anything. All this does is lead to an increased arms race which is pretty much going on right now in the region.”
This is reflected in the conditions that Gulf officials put on US requests to ramp up integration efforts — expedited weapons sales and a streamlined system for buying advanced systems. At the moment, even missile-defence items such as the THAAD have yet to be delivered, years after Congress cleared its sale to the UAE.
The delivery of advanced weapons systems will likely be the priority before any real push for an integrated missile umbrella. “That’s more country-to-country and simple to do rather than having a whole collection of states agreeing on something, which is always more complicated,” Mr Mohamed said.
There are also conditions imposed by the US on GCC countries that complicate the task for the bloc’s joint military command tasked with integration, say observers in the Gulf.
“We have various issues, some do have political dimensions but they are not related to internal GCC issues but have very much to do with the suppliers of this technology, the US and other superpowers,” said Riad Kahwaji, head of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
For example, the GCC countries face restrictions on where they place their US-bought systems, especially if they erode Israel’s military superiority over the Gulf, Mr Kahwaji said.
Another problem is the sophistication and complexity involved in aligning all the requisite systems — radars, satellites, naval ships, warplanes, short, medium and long-range missile interceptors — not to mention the vast costs involved. Budgets are shrinking in Gulf capitals as well as in Washington.
Part of the reason the UAE was the first GCC country to seek the THAAD system is its proximity to Iran’s missiles — including military installations on Abu Musa, one of three islands just miles off its coast that Iran captured from the UAE.
It is estimated that Iran’s navy and Revolutionary Guard have dozens of ships, including fast patrol boats, equipped with anti-ship missile systems. These vessels would be more difficult to target than static positions, even for US naval ships in the Gulf, and their missiles could be deployed in a sophisticated attack along with medium and long-range ballistic and cruise missiles capable of striking anywhere in the GCC. The intention would be to overwhelm defences by the sheer numbers of incoming missiles. These boats could target US and GCC ships, and possibly oil tankers in a bid to paralyse shipping lanes.
However, because of the decade-long international arms embargo, Iranian missiles, at least for now, do not have known precision guidance systems and would not be effective in targeting key infrastructure such as desalination plants, oil facilities or airbases. Instead, they could be used to inflict terror.
The UAE would likely face a more sustained attack than other Gulf countries since its major cities and other key targets are all concentrated along the coast. Saudi Arabia has its vital facilities spread across vast spaces and is less vulnerable. Ballistic missiles would take as little as 2.7 minutes to reach targets in the UAE, according to a CSIS report this year.
Iran’s technical inferiority may not last. The ban on conventional weapons sales to Tehran will be lifted in five years, under the terms of the nuclear deal, and ballistic missile technology in eight. Russia is already preparing to sell sophisticated air defence systems to Iran that will erode the GCC’s substantial on-paper military edge.
“Tehran is developing increasingly sophisticated missiles and improving the range and accuracy of its [existing] missile systems,” James Clapper, the US director of national intelligence, stated in this year’s annual report on worldwide threats.
If Gulf countries could integrate their missile defences and have a centralised command and control structure that oversees linked radars, interceptor batteries, and intelligence from US satellites and naval ships, it would help neutralise Iran’s numerical missile advantage.
“There’s progress but the threat is evolving and changing, too,” Mr Cordesman said. “It isn’t enough to have progress at a slower rate than the progress of the threat.”
US officials say they realise that integration will take time. "We hope that recent GCC security cooperation efforts, coupled with the momentum created after Camp David, will give us an opportunity to double down on current efforts," a spokesman for the US defence department, Major Roger Cabiness, told The National. "We are cognisant, however, that the process of forming a fully integrated BMD [ballistic missile defence] architecture will take years, not months."
* Justin Vela contributed reporting