The Status of Integrated Air and Missile Defence in the Arab Gulf

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has diverted global attention back to the European theatre, or broadly, the transatlantic alliance between US and NATO. Prior to this shift, Western media and members of academia were stealing the limelight by propounding different interpretations of the so-called “Indo Pacific”paradigm. In both situations, one region remained conveniently ignored: the Arab Gulf, or what some refer to as the “Middle East”.

Recently, in the midst of the prevailing commotion in Eastern Europe, the US Department of Defence timidly announced another meeting of Working Groups on Integrated Air and Missile Defence and Maritime Security at the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) headquarters in Saudi Arabia. Apart from the usual diplomatic niceties and “reeassurances”, the US and GCC member states discussed opportunities for further joint training and exercises as the bedrock of collective regional defence against Iran.

What was not timid, however, was outgoing United States Central Command’s (USCENTCOM) Commander General Kenneth McKenzie’s insistence that Israel integrates its air and missile defence systems with Arab Gulf (read: GCC) countries, a suggestion echoed by his successor, Lieutenant General Michael Kurilla. For its part, Israel had already indicated earlier that the possibility of cooperation would remain “open”.

Overview of US-GCC Security Cooperation

Arab Gulf countries have enjoyed American assistance throughout their existence both materially and morally. The establishment of the GCC served as a catalyst to synergise this cooperation in various bilateral and multilateral environments. While the events of 9/11 did not necessarily prompt a rethink in Washington, the Barack Obama administrations initiated a gradual change in foreign policy priorities from the Middle East to the Asia Pacific region. The conflict in Afghanistan had absorbed much of USCENTCOM’s resources.

These changing priorities generated concerns among monarchs in the GCC, particularly leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), who are at once at loggerheads with an aggressive Iranian regime and victims of incoming missile attacks. Both countries also happen to dominate GCC-wide discourse on account of their individual and cumulative political, economic and military potential. It was in this context that both Saudi Arabia and the UAE continue to steer the GCC toward the concept of an integrated air defence and operations paradigm to counter Iran’s malign behaviour.

Missile defence is not the exclusive concern for combined GCC military coordination, as belligerent Iranian behaviour on the maritime and cyberspace fronts got increasingly sophisticated. However, threats against missile and drone attacks necessitate primary priorities for national air defence forces in the GCC. Members such as Oman, Qatar, Kuwait (to name a few) may not have an issue with such threats from Iran, but the GCC’s Joint Defence Agreement (2000) binds member states to huddle together for collective defence since an attack on one member would be considered an attack on all (similar to NATO’s concept).

The recent series of attacks on Emirati and Saudi targets claimed by Houthi militants may give plausible deniability to the Iranian regime but, behind the scenes, amplifies concerns about the “dependability”of external supporters for these monarchies, such as the USCENTCOM. It was in this context that GCC rulers have thus beenlong prepared to embrace Israel’s entry into the regional security calculus.

Efforts by Donald Trump’s administration to promote Israeli-Arab rapprochement via Abraham Accords played a crucial role to break the ice and exploring areas of convergence where, not surprisingly, Iranian belligerence remains a subject of primary interest. The USCENTCOM continues to play the role of a facilitating platform, encouraging discourse that would eventually alter theatre-wide dynamics.

History of US-GCC Air Defence Cooperation Efforts

During the Gulf War, Iraq’s ability to launch Scud missiles into member countries revealed ineffective responses through individual and collective air defence mechanisms, causing great consternation within member GCC member countries. US Air Force General Charles A. Horner, the chief planner of successful air operations in Desert Storm (1991), assessed at the time that Israel might become party to the intra-Arab conflict for its own national defence interests. Then Saudi air chief Lieutenant General Ahmed Ibrahim Behery candidly admitted to Horner that his country would have “no problem” if Israel entered the conflict. Even King Fahd, then Saudi monarch, told George Bush Sr that he would remain in the Coalition even if Israel unilaterally struck targets inside Iraq.

Subsequently, at the 1993 GCC summit in Saudi Arabia, leaders discussed plans to integrate respective air defences and establish a joint early warning picture. Some practical efforts to this end manifested around four years later when plans for new radars and communication links among members were approved through the “Hizam Al-Taawun” (HAT) or “Cooperation Belt”, a platform developed by US defence giant Raytheon. Yet another four years were taken for Phase I to be rolled out.

The UAE has been at the forefront of fostering air operations and air defence linkages between GCC members, apart from networking with extra-regional patrons such as the US, United Kingdom (UK) and France. The UAE Air Warfare Centre was established in 2000, and though it was limited to bilateral engagements with these extra-regional countries, GCC fellows Qatar and Saudi Arabia were included in 2005.Eventually, the Centre opened its doors to train personnel from all member states.

USCENTCOM, via its air component Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT), initiated its Coalition Coordination Cell in 2013 to manage Liaison Officer (LNO) programmes across the GCC through courses in Combined Air and Space Operations Centre and regional operations. US Air Defence Liaison Teams were functioning in Iraq and GCC states except for Oman. AFCENT has tested simulations in real-time through Exercise Arabian Gulf Shield (AGS), in which GCC LNOs validate air operations and defence strategies. An extended exercise, Air and Missile Defence Exercise (AMDEX), involves joint US-GCC air, land and maritime operations to promote regional stability and defend against “malign influencers”, i.e. Iran.

The intra-GCC crisis, triggered by the Saudi, Emirati, Bahraini and Egyptian boycott of fellow member Qatar, only delayed and perhaps undid years taken to promote mutual understanding. In effect, Qatar was pushed toward patronage by Turkey and political outreach to Iran. It was four years later that this crisis would subside, and normalisation took place. During this timeframe, the GCC ratified the Unified Military Command Headquarters agreement (to be based in Saudi Arabia), and certain members were lured by Israel’s technological prowess in air defence capabilities.

By early 2021, USCENTCOM was working to integrate Saudi missile defence systems with those of its neighbours. Around this time, an Israeli specialist in Gulf politics argued in favour of Israeli assistance to Saudi air defence.

Issues Hampering Regional Missile Defence Integration Initiatives

The GCC’s cooperation in cooperative air defence (and broadly extended security cooperation) is hampered because of multiple factors.

Dr Catherine McArdle Kelleher argued that members have a history of tribal rivalries, border disputes and divergent interests, because of which mutual suspicion still remains. More importantly, Kelleher proffered that fear of Saudi dominance precludes closer cooperation. A manifestation of this fear occurred in 2015 when a specialist team of GCC Ballistic Missile Defence representatives gathered in Kuwait to discuss prospects for an integrated missile defence shield. Discussions focused on the establishment of a Command & Control (C2) hub in the UAE that would be manned by Saudi officers.This proposal was rejected by some members who refused to submit the control of their national air defences.

Another issue in integration is the purported interoperability restrictions between GCC countries, NATO and the US, which hampers data-sharing and limits avenues for cooperation. US export restrictions have often prevented GCC states from enhancing or setting up BMD systems for integration.

A third major issue is rather a dilemma. With US resources constrained because of the focus on the “Indo Pacific” and now European theatres, Israel is the only capable regional actor that can shore up efforts for collective regional defence against Iranian belligerence. Near the end of 2020, Israel tested a new type of air defence system that can knock out cruise missiles and also drones, apart from ballistic missiles. One analyst proffered that the Israelis have likely enhanced radar image processing and the development of discernment algorithms to achieve this capability.

Another issue in integration is the purported interoperability restrictions between GCC countries, NATO and the US, which hampers data-sharing and limits avenues for cooperation.

Despite the fanfare of the Abraham Accords, it is very difficult for Saudi Arabia to hint at “normalisation” with Israel (being “custodian” of the two holy sites in Makkah and Medina). The progressive dynasty of Mohammad bin Salman is not equipped to deal with the backlash from Muslims around the world, as it directly plays into the Iranian regime’s narratives that the Saudis are “in cahoots with Zionists”. Religious tourism is a major non-oil (alternative) source of income for the Saudi government.

Granted that the Saudis had a discreet agreement with Israel to use NSO’s Pegasus, but air defence integration would first require the establishment of diplomatic relations, acknowledgement of Israel’s safety and security interests and likely on-off visits by Israeli specialists to Saudi Arabia, all of which would ring alarm bells not just within the kingdom but trigger a crisis within the Muslim world.

Conclusion

While the GCC would remain receptive to the idea of forming a multilateral understanding with Israel (alongside the US) in regional integrated air and missile defence, Saudi Arabia will most likely pursue a policy of relying on bilateral arrangements with fellow council members and the US.

Israel itself would not rush to conclude any such possibility owing to its jealous protection of sensitive military technologies. But even if they relent, Saudi Arabia would likely prefer passive participation through indirect network linkages via the UAE and Bahrain. In this manner, it can avoid internal political crisis and also global backlash.

Russia had attempted exploitation of the US-GCC trust deficit by pushing for sales of its famed S-400 systems to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other GCC members. Israel’s entry in the USCENTCOM opens new avenues of cooperation that could complement regional efforts and reduce any additional burden on American shoulders.

Zaki Khalid

Zaki Khalid is a strategic analyst and freelance commentator based in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. His areas of interest include national security, geopolitics, cyberspace and maritime affairs. He is also the founder and editor of 'Pakistan Geostrategic Review (PGR)', an independent platform publishing a premium newsletter and podcasts on geostrategic developments. He can be reached on Twitter @misterzedpk.

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