The Gulf and the Challenge of Missile Defense: Net Assessment Indicators

The Burke Chair at CSIS has developed an analysis of the key factors and requirements for a net assessment of the missile threat in the Arab/Persian Gulf and the need for missile defenses. This analysis is entitled The Gulf and the Challenge of Missile Defense: Net Assessment Indicators, and is available on the CSIS website.

U.S. defense planners have been examining the need to create effective missile defenses in the Gulf since at least Iraq’s first use of ballistic missiles against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War in the mid-1980s. Actual progress, however, has been slow and has taken place on a country-by-country basis rather than a part of an integrated effort to create effective regional defenses.

Israel has developed effective layered missile and rocket defenses for itself, but the defenses of our Arab strategic partners consist largely of limited coverage by dual capable Patriot missile and air defense systems and surface-to-air missiles that provide some coverage against cruises missiles, UCAVs, and drones. Meanwhile, Iraq, Oman, and Bahrain do not have a Patriot missile system.

The United States has deployed Aegis cruisers in the past on a contingency basis and has now deployed THAAD missile defenses to the region. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have also bought THADD systems. As yet, however, there are no clear plans to provide an integrated missile defense system for the region, and the deep divisions between Arab strategic partners make it impossible to even develop integrated air defenses.

This has become a critical issue for U.S. and partner defense planning. Iran has already demonstrated that it can conduct precision strikes on key oil facilities in Saudi Arabia and accurate volleys of missile attacks on U.S. forces at bases in Iraq. It is clear that Iran can also exert considerable influence over the Houthi, the Hezbollah, and the Iraqi Popular Militias Forces to conduct attacks with missiles that it supplies to such forces.

Moreover, it is clear that Iran is both improving its air defenses using surface-to-air missile defenses like the TOR-M and S-300 while also developing a range of conventionally-armed precision strike systems that range from air breathing drones and cruise missiles to long-range ballistic missile systems that will be far more mobile and easy to shelter or disperse. The past U.S. and Arab partner advantages from a major superiority in air defense systems and in fighter air and surface-to-air missile defense systems are eroding – although the full nature of Iran’s evolving capabilities remain unclear with unclassified sources now also highly uncertain.

This is critical in a region that provides some of the most vulnerable targets in the world. These include energy facilities that provide 21% of the world’s oil and large amounts of its liquid natural gas. They also include cities in some of most urbanized countries in the world, extremely vulnerable desalination plants – that provide critical sources of portable water to cities that have no other source of water – along with equally vulnerable electric power, air, and seaport facilities.

Iran is vulnerable in many similar ways, but a mix of conventionally armed Iranian missiles – and U.S. and Arab partner air and missile strikes – can act as “weapons of mass effectiveness” that effectively substitute for weapons of mass destruction. The casualties would be much lower, but the economic damage could effectively create the near equivalent of MAD or mutually assured destruction.

These challenges are further compounded by Iran’s growing strategic presence in Syria and Yemen, by the uncertain strategic position and future of Iraq, by the challenges posed by continued extremist threats, and by the growing role of Russia, China, and Turkey in Gulf affairs. Moreover, the Iranian missile threat is greatly compounded by the growth of its asymmetric naval forces, by the increase of other threats in the Gulf, by Iran’s potential use of missiles, and by other forms of attack by foreign non-state actors.

So far, the United States and Arab partner response is unclear. The scale and nature of the U.S. commitment to the Gulf region is becoming less and less certain, and the self-destructive tensions between Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – along with the uncertain role of Oman and Kuwait – create further major uncertainties as to what process will really be made in missile defense.

Moreover, the growing tensions between Iran, the Arab Gulf states, and the United States have already led to significant clashes at low to moderate levels that warn that deterrence has weakened and that there is both a growing threat of long wars of attrition and escalation to much higher levels of conflict. This is particularly true because Iran deals with intense pressure from U.S. sanctions and internal unrest, and the Arab partner states face a common need to fund major economic and social reform although they are already spending far more of their GDP on military forces than the United States – Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are spending close to 10%.

There is no easy way deal with so many complex and unstable variables, and much of the open literature and data now available are dated or uncertain. As a result, it seems better to present the range of key variables that now shape any net assessment of the present and future role of missile defense than to focus on a given set of scenarios with such uncertain data and constantly evolving changes.

The Burke Chair at CSIS has developed such an analysis as part of its participation in the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Missile and Space Defense Conference held in February 2020. It does not provide any simple answers to any of the previous issues, but it does provide a wide range of unclassified information as a window into the complex issues involved with the “game” between Iran, its Arab neighbors, and outside powers like the United States, which is roughly equivalent to a game of four dimensional chess with no clear rules and no clear limits to the number of players.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the United States Department of Defense and the United States Department of State.