US Missile Defense Collaboration with Gulf States

By Bilal Y. Saab In this March 30 report by the Washington Post, we learn that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has proposed improved collaboration with Gulf Arab states on maritime security and missile defense to counter potential threats from Iran.

Not much new there, US-GCC relations are old, strategic and continue to be “rock solid” (to quote Clinton) — except —- that Washington is now starting what will be a long-term process of dealing with GCC allies on a more multilateral basis (yes, bilateral relations with the Saudis will still be paramount, although Qatar is high up there now). It will still take an enormous amount of diplomatic work to switch the format of US relations with the Arab Gulf, but if you read the statements of US officials you can be positive that it is happening. The driver of this strategy? The Iranian missile threat, no doubt.

One of the fruits that could come out of this new US strategy is a regional (GCC) missile defense system for the Arab Gulf. But even the most inexperienced analyst of military affairs and missile defenses knows the gigantic (financial, technical, operational, military) challenges of missile defenses, let alone region-wide systems. Talk about a bold and ambitious plan by Washington. Sure the Gulf states will pay the bill (these things cost a fortune), but these systems are no panacea when it comes to improving security or meeting the asymmetric military challenge of Iran. There is no need to repeat the old problems of missile defenses here but very briefly Iran can very easily overwhelm them with a barrage of missiles and decoys. Also, will the systems defend military assets or population centers? Once it becomes region-wide (which could take a while), who will man the systems? US or Gulf personnel? I expect the former but if the latter, how will Gulf states create a region-wide command and control center? Most likely with the help of the United States. Will the Saudis have the upper hand given their clout in the GCC? Don’t forget that the Saudis already have US Patriot systems on their territory. The Kuwaitis too. The Emiratis have the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system (for more on missile defenses, see Victoria Samson’s American Missile Defense)

Is a new regional security architecture for the Middle East in the works? Hardly. We have heard that before. It might be less challenging to start with a GCC archiecture, but extending that to the wider Middle East, in the absence of regional peace with Israel, is a thing of fiction, at least for now.  

Photo: AFP Photo / Fayez Nureldine