Regardless of what happens between the United States and Iran in the nuclear talks, an inexcusable strategic misstep that Washington has continued to make throughout this diplomatic process is its failure to establish an integrated air defense system and anti-missile (IAMD) in the Gulf.
Of course, it was a collective failure. Washington cannot impose the problem on its Arab Gulf partners. These countries must be the ones pushing aggressively for it and tacitly cooperating. They didn’t because of mistrust among themselves and a misunderstanding of the value and technical operation of IAMD.
The Americans have also failed in their role. As a primary partner with the unique expertise and tools, Washington bears considerable responsibility. The last time US policymakers presented a serious Gulf IAMD proposal was in 2008, when Defense Secretary Robert Gates led the initiative.
President Barack Obama took office the following year. His top priority in the Middle East was to seek rapprochement and ultimately sign a nuclear deal with Iran, which he did in 2015. Developing a workable plan to meet the growing missile capabilities Iran’s progress was not an urgent priority for the Obama administration. President Obama held two summits with Arab Gulf leaders in 2015 and 2016, during which US officials discussed IAMD with their Arab Gulf counterparts, but no real effort was made to transform the idea. in reality.
President Donald Trump had another opportunity to do the Gulf IAMD well. His administration correctly diagnosed the Iranian challenge in its entirety rather than through the narrow prism of the regime’s nuclear activities. But America’s maximum pressure policy has done a terrible job of curbing Tehran’s nuclear enrichment, limiting its missile arsenal, or countering its violence in the region. Trump assured Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that they would receive American protection, but he did nothing to move the IAMD forward. Iran even managed to strike major Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais from its own territory with drones and cruise missiles in the fall of 2019.
President Joe Biden can now correct the strategic mistakes of the past. The process begins with the recognition of the compelling rationale for building an effective IAMD system in the region. Such a shield would provide protection not only to Gulf Arabs, but also to US forces and embassies in the region. These US assets are within range of Iranian missiles, making the fight against this grave threat a critical US responsibility.
A regional IAMD system should also create a more powerful deterrent. If the Gulf Arab states are indeed able to jointly develop a more credible capability with the United States to detect and intercept deadly Iranian projectiles, Tehran might think twice before launching an assault. This is called “deterrence by refusal”. To be clear, the IAMD may not always prevent Iranian attacks, but it will undoubtedly influence Tehran’s calculations.
What the Obama and Trump administrations failed to realize is that the IAMD in the Gulf would have been a powerful companion in any policy towards Iran, whether it be rapprochement or maximum pressure. This move should never have been seen as a distraction from nuclear talks, or as a provocation against Iran. On the contrary, it remains a vital catalyst.
Had the regional IAMD been pursued with vigor and determination before or, less ideally, during nuclear talks with Iran, Washington and its Arab Gulf partners could have created additional leverage against the Iranians. It would not have nullified the Iranians’ extensive missile and drone capabilities, but it could have shaken their confidence and prompted them to make concessions in nuclear talks. The indecision over IAMD for many years has benefited Tehran on several fronts.
Gulf IAMD would also be in line with the global priorities of the Biden administration. There is plenty of room for greater efficiency in America’s defense position and investments in the Middle East. This is what the next Global Force Posture Review, itself informed by the new national defense strategy, is likely to reveal.
These potential military adjustments by Washington in the Middle East, likely necessary for the introduction of greater US firepower in the Indo-Pacific region, are more effective and economical if accompanied by the Gulf IAMD. Indeed, such a system should be the most important element of any American agenda that seeks to reallocate resources from the region to the Far East.
So what would it mean to fulfill this long-discussed priority? What role would the Gulf Arabs have to play? On the American side, it will take leadership from above. Biden must publicly endorse the idea and explain to his Arab Gulf partners, as well as the Iranians, that he will be more committed to its implementation than any of his predecessors. Otherwise, Tehran will expect the status quo and the Gulf partners will not even listen. They’ve heard those empty promises before.
Once Biden communicates America’s resolve, he should instruct his Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State to cooperate closely, given the equity and mutually reinforcing responsibilities of their departments in the area of ââdefense. missile defense.
The Undersecretary of Defense for Policy is expected to serve as the civilian champion and coordinator of the initiative. His office will enable and oversee the activities of US Central Command (CENTCOM), which will be responsible for implementing the initiative.
To ensure compatibility between US and Gulf Arab missile defense systems (i.e. they are all of the same type – Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) – and work on the same friend or foe identification mode and with the same link-16 communication system), the State Department’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) process should be aligned with this new strategic priority.
With the effective oversight of the civilian leadership of the Pentagon, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), which manages the FMS program for the Department of Defense, should laser focus on this missile defense mission and abandon its old sales habits. weapons. in the Gulf to sell. In addition, the DSCA should get rid of another pathology, which examines FMS cases by country rather than by region. Any effort to create a regional MDRI should be supported by a security cooperation enterprise focused on coaching and mentoring partners through the FMS case management process to invest in vital contributions to an architecture. regional.
For their part, the Arab Gulf countries must work together on this issue. Without their cooperation, a shared early warning system (SEWS) across the region cannot be set up. Such a system, which the Arab Gulf partners are expected to acquire through the FMS program, is IAMD’s most critical element, the first layer of defense. It provides rapid and uninterrupted reports on the location and trajectory of ballistic missile launches so that countermeasures can be prepared and civilians can be warned and protected.
SEWS is administered and deployed by the US Air Force in many partner countries around the world to spot missile defenses. In this case, the United States will serve as a hub providing data via its satellites to all SEWS terminals with its Gulf partners. It would be much less useful for each Arab Gulf country to have their own bilateral threat warning agreement with the United States, but that is what they have historically asked for. Arab Gulf partners do not trust each other enough to share data.
There are two reasons why an integrated network in the Gulf region is essential. First, the geographic distances are too short in this part of the world. Second, because of these distances, response times to potential missile launches are too short. All partners must participate in the same air defense network, which includes SEWS, a suite of short and long range radars, and civil aviation air control systems.
The air and missile defense staffs of these Gulf Arab countries would participate in a star coalition system comprising command and control representation. This allows the United States and its Arab Gulf partners to be on the same “frequency” in order to effectively deter or defend against the threat.
To illustrate with a concrete example: the SEWS in Qatar captures a missile launch from Iran, then immediately the national air defense command posts in the United Arab Emirates (or Saudi Arabia or Bahrain) will record it because they are all on the same network. This allows the UAE to immediately activate their Patriot or THAAD batteries based on information gathered by the hub in Qatar. It all depends on the location of the sensors, and the trick is to tie the sensors together in a common regional setting across the Arabian Peninsula.
A common satellite and radar data missile defense architecture would require willing Gulf Arab countries – no less than three or four of them, including the Saudis, Emiratis, Qataris, and Bahrainis, and ideally the Israelis now that. they are officially part of it. CENTCOM â to sign a binding agreement with the United States that creates a regional IAMD command and control network. The structure of such a relationship would be based on similar arrangements that exist within NATO and the coalition defense architecture for the Korean Peninsula.