The Gulf Military Balance in 2019: A Graphic Analysis
November 7, 2019
The military balance in the Gulf region has become steadily more complex with time. Conventional forces have been been reshaped by massive arms transfers, and changes in major weapons, technology, and virtually every aspect of joint warfare, command and control, sensors, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems.
Missile warfare is changing radically as diverse mixes of ballistic and cruise missiles, UAVs and UCAVs, and missiles are deployed. Precision-guided, conventionally armed missiles are becoming a key aspect of regional forces, and so are missile defenses. The threat of nuclear proliferation remains, and at least one state – Iran – is a declared chemical weapons power while the Assad regime in Syria has made repeated use of chemical weapons.
At the same time, asymmetric forces, “proxy” forces, and various forms of military advisory and support missions are playing a growing role in local conflicts and gray area operations. So are local militia and security forces – often divided within a given Gulf state by sect and ethnicity. Terrorist and extremist forces continue to pose serious threats, as do political tensions and upheavals, and the weaknesses and failures of some regional governments to meet the needs of their people.
The most serious sources of Gulf conflicts are now the tensions between Iran and the Arab Gulf states, and the role played by terrorists and extremists, but civil war and insurgencies remain an additional threat - as do the links between Iran, Syria, and the Hezbollah. The growing role of Russia and Turkey add to regional instability as does the uncertain role of the U.S. and its focus on linking sanctions to Iran’s military activities.
No one analysis can cover all of these military developments, but the Burke Chair at CSIS has prepared a graphic analysis that focuses on key developments in Gulf military forces, and selected aspects of regional security.
This report is being distributed for comment in working paper form, and is entitled The Gulf Military Balance in 2019: A Graphic Analysis . It is available in working draft form on the CSIS web site at https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/191114_Gulf_Military_Balance_Final.pdf.
Its contents include maps, tables, and graphics that summarize the following key aspects of the balance:
- An Unstable Region Where Civil Violence May Dominate: Key maps and graphics highlighting the level of instability by state, the rising intensity of political protests, the levels of extremist and terrorist violence relative to risk, and the recent patterns in overall extremist and total ISIS attacks.
- Divided Along Ethnic and Sectarian Lines: Maps showing key Sectarian and Ethnic divisions.
- Growing Iranian Influence and Recent Attacks: Maps showing the areas where Iran’s support of the Hezbollah, the Assad regime in Syria, and factions with Iraq, is having a growing destabilizing impact on the Gulf.
- The Struggle for Iraq: Maps highlighting the deep ethnic and sectarian divisions in Iraq, the role of Iranian-backed Popular Militia Forces, the vulnerability of key Iraqi petroleum facilities, and the fact that defeat of the ISIS physical “Caliphate” has not meant. The defeat of either ISIS or extremism in Iraq.
- Comparative Military Budgets and Arms Transfers: Graphs and tables showing the steady build-up of military spending and arms transfers in the Gulf region, and the vast advantage Arab states have had in such spending and access to modern military technology relative to Iran. These spending levels, however, also place a major burden on some Arab economies and are too high a percent of GDP to allow proper economic growth and job creation.
It should be noted that boycott of Qatar and other tensions between the Arab states shown – along with the lack of integrated defense systems, battle management, and IS&R capability plus the lack of real-world readiness and meaningful exercise activity – critically cuts the value of both Arab numerical superiority and far higher military expenditures and arms transfers.
- U.S. Forward Deployed Forces: Maps and graphs that show that the United States remains the dominant outside power in the Gulf – regardless of recent force cuts and debates over burdensharing.
- Total Regular Gulf Military Forces: A table showing the classic summary measures of conventional force strength by country, and in a comparison of total Gulf Cooperation Council and Iranian forces. It should again be noted that boycott of Qatar and other tensions between the Arab states shown – along with the lack of integrated defense systems, battle management, and IS&R capability plus the lack of real-world readiness and meaningful exercise activity – critically cuts the value of both Arab numerical superiority and far higher military expenditures and arms transfers.
- Nuclear Forces: Maps and tables that warn that Iranian proliferation remains a serious potential threat.
- Missile Forces: A range of tables and maps showing the rising Iranian missile threat, the reliance of the Gulf Arab states on air power, and Iran’s emphasis on precision missile strike capability as a substitute for its limits in airpower.
- Land Forces: Tables showing the comparative land balance –the only major area of conventional forces where Iran has parity or possible superiority, but one where Iran is not organized to sustain long-range maneuver, has only token amphibious-forced entry capability, and would have to attack through Iraq. This leaves Kuwait as the one GCC country with high vulnerability.
- Naval Forces: The Arab states have an advantage in high quality larger surface vessels, but have serious readiness issues, and would be heavily dependent on U.S. help to prepare for combat and then operate together effectively. Iran has an advantage in anti-ship missiles, smart mines, and asymmetric warfare capability. All Gulf states, however, would suffer severely from any conflict that halted commercial shipping through the Strait of Hormuz and that reduced their petroleum export income.
- Air and Air Defense Forces: Iran has updated many of its aircraft as much as possible, but they are no longer competitive with most Arab combat aircraft. The Arab states also have a major advantage in the quality of their surface-to-air defenses –although the Iranian deployment of the Russian S-300 is sharply reducing this advantage. Once again, the Arab advantage is offset by a lack of integrated and interoperable AC&W, AWACS, IS&R, and battle management capability. They would be heavily dependent on U.S. help to prepare for combat and then operate together effectively.
- The Yemen War: This tragic conflict has increased Iranian influence in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea area, and presented major problems for Saudi and UAE forces and cooperation.
- Petroleum and Infrastructure Targets: Every military balance is a balance of comparative vulnerabilities as well as one of relative military capability. Both Iran and the Arab Gulf states are highly vulnerable to attacks on critical petroleum and infrastructure facilities. High levels of escalation present a major risk to both sides.
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.