The Gulf Military Balance and U.S. Commitments to the Gulf

There is a growing policy level debate in the U.S. over the risk of a serious conflict between Iran and the U.S. and its Arab strategic partners. This has led to reports that the U.S. could deploy up to 14,000 more military personnel to the Gulf, along with a significant increase in it its combat ships and major weapons systems.

The Evolving Matrix of Threats and Risks

It is far from clear that a major conflict will occur, but it is clear that the threat from Iran is growing, that some form of “gray area” military clashes are likely, and there is a risk that such a clash could escalate significantly even if Iran does not want to engage in a major conflict.

These risks are compounded by a wide range of other variables that affect U.S. commitments to the Arab/Persian Gulf region. They include very different and unpredictable levels of tension and conflict – driven by the following major variables and contingencies:

  • Risk of actual conflict at very different levels of intensity: Major war, limited war, proxy uses of forces, threats with military gestures, low-levels attacks.
  • Serious reduction in Gulf exports of petroleum, LNG and impact on global economy, critical U.S. imports of Asian manufactured goods.
  • Continuing Gray Area operations and clashes: Ranging from proxy forces and low-level to sabotage to naval encounters in the Gulf and missile strikes on key infrastructure and military target.
  • Steady increase in numbers and quality of missile forces: Ballistic, cruise, RPVs, air-launched, Sea-launched; precision-strike/smart warhead, and in different forms of missile defenses.
  • Equal rises in air forces: Strike/attack, fighter, IS&R, precision strike.
  • Improvements in surface-to-air missile forces (SAMs) and dual capable BMD and SAM forces.
  • Expansion of air-sea operations to cover entire Gulf/Gulf of Oman/Indian Ocean/Red Sea – Naval surface, missile, air, smart mine, submarines, submersibles.
  • Struggle for control of Iraq: Sectarian, Ethnic, Extremist, PMFs, proxies, Iran, U.S.
  • Struggle for control of Syria: Idlib, Kurdish areas. Uncertain ability to unify rebuild, develop, and stabilize.
  • Resurgence of extremism/ISIS, AQAP, other.
  • Use of, or development of, Nuclear, chemical, (BW?) forces.
  • Precision targeting of critical petroleum, economic, desalination, other infrastructure and military targets; Use of weapons of mass effectiveness.
  • New forms of cyber warfare, electronic warfare, attacks on critical nodes/sensors.
  • Competing roles of outside powers: US/Europe, Russia, Turkey, Syria, China: presence/influence/arms sales/advisors/active military role
  • Uncertain future nature of U.S., British, French presence and power projection.
  • Evolving role of proxies and non-state actors: Hezbollah, Hamas, PIJ, PMF, “volunteers,” support of extremists and ethnic/sectarian factions.
  • Arab strategic partner disunity and self-destructiveness: boycott of Qatar, distancing of Oman, Kuwait neutral, UAE tensions with Saudi.
  • Turkey vs. Kurds. Kurdish tension in Iraq and Iran.
  • “Failed state” political and economic upheavals – and potential internal conflicts – in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Yemen.
  • Yemen civil war, struggle for control of Yemen: Iran Houthi, Yemeni government, Saudi Arabia, UAE, AQAP, other internal factions.
  • Ethnic and sectarian, internal and local tensions and conflict: Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Saudi; Interactions with Egypt, Jordan, Palestinian internal issues.
  • Evolving reality of Shi’ite “axis”: Hezbollah, Syria, Iraq, Iran.
  • Impact of sanctions vs. military action, “wars” of intimidation.

New Report on the Gulf Military Balance

There is no way to predict how these risks will evolve, or what forms future conflicts and power struggles will take. It is possible, however, to assess the current strength of the Iranian and Arab military forces in the region, the current level of U.S. military forces, key trends in regional military spending and arms transfers, key areas of vulnerability and the potential impact of a major war on global petroleum supplies. It also is now possible to assess Iranian military development using excerpts from new reporting by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency.

The Burke Chair is issuing a new and greatly expanded assessment of the regional military balance addressing these issues written by Anthony H. Cordesman and Abdullah Toukan, with the support of Max Molot. It is entitled The Gulf Military Balance in 2019: A Graphic Analysis, a nd is available on the CSIS web site at

The key sections of this report cover the following topics:

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • DIA Assessment of Iranian Military Modernization: An open-source summary of how Iran’s view of the balance is changing its regular military forces and tactics, its irregular forces, links to the forces of other states and non-state actors, and the roles of its specific forces.

  • 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 Exports and 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.

New Report on U.S. Commitments to the Gulf

The Burke Chair has prepared a second report on the evolving situation in the Gulf that addresses the uncertain nature of U.S. commitments to the region. This report is entitled Assessing U.S. Defense Commitments in the Gulf, and is available on the CSIS web site at

This report address the unclassified and open source data available on the forces and trends shaping current U.S. military commitments to the Gulf. These data provide considerable insight into the affordability of maintaining such commitments, the probable size of actual U.S. deployments, and the real-world burden sharing issues involved. The information available is limited, however, by two critical problems:

  • The lack of any consistent strategy, commitment to given national security interests, and focus on military and strategic effectiveness at the highest levels in the U.S. government, and focus on transactional advantage and burden sharing that is not tied to any assessment of military need and effectiveness.

  • A lack of consistent reporting on U.S deployments, force costs, and data other than total military personnel.

  • A focus on military and security issues that ignore critical political and economic problems that have turned Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Yemen into “failed states” at the civil level coupled to sectarian and ethnic tensions which receive minimal attention relative to a focus on extremism by non-state actors with little or no attention to the impact of state terrorism by governments like those of Iraq and Syria.

An Unstable Region where Civil Violence May Dominate

The report opens by providing a list of the key factors that could involve the U.S. in future conflicts or crises in the region. It provides maps showing the region involved, and a comparison of current U.S. and Iranian basing capabilities. It provides a map that highlights two U.S. bases, located in Bahrain and Qatar that can play a critical role in managing a crisis, clash, or war in the Gulf region. It is clear that if one only considers the challenge posed by Iran, the U.S. and its Arab strategic partners have a major challenge as long as Iran is a hostile power.

The Shrinking Cost and Economic Burden of US Military Force

The report then shows the trends in the cost of U.S. military commitments relative to total federal spending and the U.S. GDP. It provides an overview of current U.S. military commitments in the Gulf region, and attempts to put them in perspective relative to the burden on U.S. forces, the Federal budget, and the U.S. defense budget. It shows that for all the focus on cost of U.S. wars in the Gulf and other regions, there has been comparatively limited change in the defense, and other national security shares of the Federal budget since 1950, and that virtually all of the growth in the total federal budget has been driven by the steady expansion of spending on American civil economic and social programs.

In contrast, the military’s share of total federal spending has remained surprisingly constant in comparison to the rises in civil social and economic spending since 1950, and its share of the GDP and total federal spending has steadily declined.

No reliable data are available on the current costs of U.S. deployments in the Gulf, but it is clear that massive drops have occurred in the overall cost of war fighting since FY2008. The cost of U.S. overseas contingency outlays (OCO) for the U.S. fighting in Iraq and Syria peaked in FY2008 at $148 billion, but has dropped sharply since, and is projected to be only $7 billion in FY2020. It is also clear that the number of U.S. military personnel deployed in all U.S. wars dropped seriously.

The Shrinking Size of US Overseas Deployments

Major cuts have taken place in the number of U.S. military forces deployed overseas since the end of the Cold War, and in the number deployed in the Gulf region since the U.S. withdrew most of its land combat forces in 2011. Graphs based on DoD data show that only 9% of U.S. forces are now deployed in Permanent Change of Station positions overseas. Only 14,611 of these personnel are deployed in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. If combat personnel and personnel at sea are added, the total only seems to rise to average levels around 24,000, with some 17,000 on land.

In contrast, an IISS estimate for 2018 is higher. It shows these totals as 25,500 in Gulf countries, and 36,954 in MENA and Other Gulf-related countries – plus more at sea.

The Rising Burden Borne by Gulf and Arab States provided the following major increase in partner military capability, and imposed a burden higher than the U.S. is spending worldwide:

  • Arab Gulf GCC states spent $135.6 billion on defense. This was 7 times the estimate for Iran. Saudi Arabia alone spent $82.9 billion – far more than the estimated total military budget for Russia.
  • Every Gulf Arab GCC state spend far more than 2% of GDP on military forces. Saudi Arabia and Oman spent over 10% of their GDP. At least Seven Arab Gulf countries spent a higher percentage of their GDP than the U.S.
  • Arab Gulf states provided 374,800 military personnel. The U.S. provided well under 50,000.

Committing the right forces to the Gulf offers the U.S. a long list of potential strategic benefits to the U.S. Key benefits include:

  • Counter/Limit/Reverse Iranian influence and deter or defeat Iran, use of Syrian, Hezbollah, and Yemeni proxies.
  • Limit Arab tensions and self-destructive fault lines, provide more effective coordination and leadership of Gulf/GCC forces.
  • Maintain stable flow of 20% of world oil supplies, 4.1 TCF of LNG: Critical to stability of U.S. and Global economy.
  • Steady flow of Gulf Oil and Gas critical to U.S. economy and jobs.
  • Provides options to limit level of escalation: Threats, proxy, limited war, major war.
  • Helps contain Russian, Turkish, Chinese presence/influence/arms sales.
  • Major strategic leverage relative to China, support of India, access to Indian Ocean, impact on SE Asia.

Arms Sales Benefits to U.S. (Data on Gulf state offsets and value of services not available)

U.S. arms sales and transfers provide critical military advantages in interoperability and standardization, and ease of joint operations. They also involved massive sales revenues:

  • The Arab Gulf GCC states signed $100.200 billion in new arms agreements between 2008 and 2015. Saudi Arabia alone spent $61.9 billion
  • The Arab Gulf GCC states requested $3.7 billion more in 2016.
  • They then requested a total of $48.4 billion more in arms sales requests signed after President Trump was inaugurated in January 2017.