Debating regional missile defencePosted: 08/12/2012
Much press attention at this year’s Manama Dialogue will focus inevitably on the conflict in Syria and other consequences of the Arab Spring. But a set of other core issues also remain, including the threat perceptions of regional states, and Iran’s place in these calculations. Regional states, and international partners such as the US, remain concerned by Iran’s continuing drive to improve its ballistic missile capabilities, amidst international preoccupation with Tehran’s nuclear programme. Given these uncertainties, the development of regional military capabilities will likely figure high in delegates’ conversations
In recent years, proposed and actual arms sales to the region have strongly featured aircraft and air defence missile systems. Washington and Riyadh signed a deal covering the acquisition of new F-15SA combat aircraft and the upgrading of some of the Saudi air force’s existing F-15 fleet at the end of 2011. The UAE and Oman are also in the process of fighter aircraft purchases.
A set of notifications in October 2012 refocused attention on Gulf states’ interest in boosting their missile defence capacities. Qatar and the UAE expressed interest in purchasing Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems from Washington, while Qatar also requested the sale of Patriot systems.
If delivered, THAAD in Qatar and the UAE will complement the Patriot systems already in the Gulf (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and those operated by US forces). THAAD will, in theory, give the capability to engage targets a greater ranges and higher altitudes than Patriot – giving a mid-tier intercept capability to complement that of Patriot in the lower-tier
US forces in the region, meanwhile, also possess ship-based SM-3 interceptors, while Saudi Arabia, according to experts, wishes to discuss with the US a purchase of shore-based SM-3s, like those scheduled to deploy to Europe under phase 2 of the European Phased Adaptive Approach missile defence initiative. Qatar’s acquisition of Patriot, meanwhile, would substantially improve its existing air and missile defence capability
The acquisition of advanced equipment does not necessarily translate into improved capability. Given the common threat perceptions, geographical proximity as well as common assets, the development of an integrated region-wide missile defence capability has long been discussed. Previous Manama Dialogues have seen former US secretary of defense Robert Gates exhort regional states to enhance shared early warning, while Gen David Petraeus, when CENTCOM commander, discussed common approaches to enhancing regional security, such as air and missile defence, as well as the development of a common operating picture.
Within the region, much defence cooperation remains bilateral – between regional states and the US – or tends to take place through non-regional frameworks. There remains little in the way of a cohseive regional defence network, even after efforts to develop this after the 1981 fouundation of the GCC. A multiplicity of factors which impede aspects of multilateral defence cooperation in the region, ranging from the historical to the bureaucratic and political
There have been some developments in recent years, but these have been driven mainly by an evolution in the perceived threat. Regional states have engaged in multilateral missions and assumed coordinating positions, such as Bahrain’s turns to command Combined Task Force 152. The GCC also decided to set up a marine security coordination centre in Bahrain. (Iran’s naval capacities, particularly asymmetric capacities, also concern regional planners.) Further, the GCC’s Peninsula Shield force demonstrated regional states’ capacity to plan and deploy in the internal security role with its early 2011 deployment to Bahrain.
But effective cooperation has proven a harder ask with regard to air and missile defence. As noted above, regional militaries have relevant assets, including advanced detection radar and increasingly effective air defence and missile defence equipment. But cooperation in integrating these assets and developing a common operational picture remains dependent on the coordination of outside powers, particularly the US. Washington retains substantial missile defence capability in the region, as well as the command and control facilities to integrate and operate these. Advanced national systems are linked to a US information and operations hub which, as noted in the 2012 IISS Military Balance while ‘operationally effective at protecting against limited strikes on any one sector within the Gulf, (the US coordinated system) is far from optimised and remains vulnerable to concentrated Iranian fire against a single sector or country.’
US officials previously referred to this situation, where the US acts as a coordinating hub, as one of ‘multi-bilateralism’. There is little prospect of the US rolling back this coordinating role any time soon, certainly in the absence of more cohesive regional moves to develop this capacity. But it is likely that the US will continue to encourage regional states to do more of this themselves. So it will be interesting to see the exent to which these discussions figure at this year’s Dialogue, and whether the THAAD notifications do herald any intent to develop a more integrated regional missile defence architecture comprising, for instance, a region-wide interconnected air and missile defence system pooling sensor information to boost early warning, or whether they instead just constitute the latest boost to regional states’ national military inventories.