Getting the GCC to Cooperate on Missile Defense


This week President Obama convenes a summit with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council, at which he will reportedly urge GCC members to move forward on missile defense cooperation. The range of cooperation under consideration consists of greater information and intelligence sharing, interoperability, additional foreign military sales on both a bilateral and cooperative basis, and joint operational planning. In the context of the P5+1 nuclear negotiations aimed at suspending or slowing Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the GCC would be wise to heed this advice — if only because many of them doubt the anticipated nuclear deal will go far enough in restraining Iran’s nuclear programs and other regional ambitions.

It is indeed unfortunate that missiles as delivery systems were not built into the nuclear framework, an omission that affects Iran’s neighbors more acutely than negotiators in Europe or the United States. Iranian conventional missile capabilities already concern its neighbors even without an Iranian bomb, as witnessed by billions already invested in missile defenses by partners in the region. The time required to purchase or develop, deploy, and train to both offensive missiles and missile defense interceptors far exceeds the relatively short nuclear breakout period Iran is expected to have under the framework. Further missile defense cooperation would help realize the potential of these past investments and help hedge against eventual breakout.

Given shared concerns about Iranian missile programs, the most numerous and diverse in the region, air and missile defense cooperation just might work. Long the beneficiary of foreign assistance from North Korea and elsewhere, Iran has become increasingly self-sufficient for production and a proliferator in its own right, both of rockets and anti-ship missiles like those used by Hezbollah in 2006 to attack an Israeli ship. Iran’s Shahab-3 reportedly has a range of 2,000 kilometers and may be nuclear capable. Other developments of concern include the solid-fueled Sejil, reported guidance improvements, and the recent (but still largely unappreciated) test of a cruise missile said to have a range of 2,500 kilometers.

The idea of missile defense cooperation is not new. Turkey and Israel even briefly pursued joint-production of Arrow in the late 1990s. More recently, in 2012 and again in 2013 and 2014, the U.S.-GCC Strategic Cooperation Forum reaffirmed its intent to work toward “a Gulf-wide, interoperable missile defense architecture.” So far, such coordination and interoperability remain largely aspirational.

The United States maintains regional missile defenses through CENTCOM and EUCOM, but this presence is limited, so local partners must do more. Several countries have been buying and deploying defenses independently. Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, and Qatar, for example, have spent billions on PATRIOT and THAAD. In such compressed space like the Gulf, even significant investment in sensors by wealthier nations cannot fully compensate for the curvature of the earth and the short warning times. Each country in the Gulf could continue to independently purchase systems that would in turn independently detect, scramble, and intercept air and missile threats. This is the path currently being pursued, but such disaggregated defenses have limits, even if well-funded. When it comes to early warning and tracking, a little cooperation goes a long way. A radar installation in, say, Qatar could be helpful to warn about an Iranian launch toward, for example, UAE or Saudi Arabia. Several hubs already exist that could help support interoperability, such as the U.S. Combined Air Operations Center, the Integrated Air and Missile Defense Center, and the Gulf Air Warfare Center.

More hardware would broaden and deepen defenses, but the real challenge is less about money and interceptors and more about GCC members’ historical distrust and reluctance to work together. Several events, however, suggest the time may be ripe for such cooperation. None-too-quiet discomfort with America’s rapprochement with Iran has stoked both discussions of a joint Arab military force and of an enlarged responsibility for their own security. Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia took military action, reportedly independent of the United States, with recent airstrikes in Libya and Yemen.

To achieve more robust integrated air and missile defense for the region, three areas should be prioritized:

The first and most important goal is information sharing, including early warning and tracking data. Ideally, this would evolve into a common operating picture with digital networking. Such a step would not require the surrender of individual sovereign decision-making authority about what information to share. Even if political rivalries now preclude persistent day-to-day sharing, GCC members and other partners should consider creating and testing the network now, so it could be switched on later or in a crisis.

The second goal is the sensors and shooters themselves. The GCC and others should expand and improve their suite of radars and sensors, including in space, and integrate them into a common operating picture. States should also continue to acquire additional and more evolved interceptors, either independently or jointly with the GCC. In 2014, President Obama took the unprecedented step of authorizing foreign military sales to the GCC as an entity, like NATO and the African Union, allowing members to pool their resources and operations. Even petrodollars are finite, so the GCC should take advantage of this. The United States, for its part, should look for ways to improve decision-making processes for weapon releasability for additional systems such as the Standard Missile and Aegis. Gulf partners have previously expressed interest in acquiring and possibly even helping to fund development of an extended range THAAD.

A third priority involves doctrine and concepts of operation — who shoots at an incoming missile, when, and with how many interceptors? It’s not enough to buy missiles and park them in the desert. With warning times as short as four minutes, real-world “fight tonight” capability requires significant pre-delegation. This can be worked through training, tabletop exercises, senior leader seminars, live-fire tests, and demonstrations of interconnectivity.

A vote of confidence in the United States or in the outcome of the Iranian negotiations is not required for missile defense cooperation to make sense. On the contrary, building such capacity represents part of an important hedge against both Iranian breakout and a declining U.S. presence in the region. These and other actions would build upon and realize the full potential of substantial investments already made. It’s time for the GCC to heed the past conclusions of the Strategic Cooperation Forum, put aside their internal rivalries, and move forward to cooperatively defend against this shared regional threat.


Thomas Karako is a senior fellow at the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. This summer, CSIS will release a full-length report entitled “Federated Defense in the Middle East.”


Photo credit: Bahrain Ministry of Foreign Affairs

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