US Missile Umbrella

A file photo of the Pentagon's THAAD anti-missile defense rocket

The US has a long-standing commitment to the Gulf States—and considering the recent tensions with Iran—the Obama administration probably believes that now is the time to both reassure its allies and send a message to Tehran that Washington is determined to contain its regional (and possibly nuclear) ambitions. US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, originally stated in a conference in Thailand back in 2009 that the US would extend a “defense umbrella” to regional allies in order to deter Iran, and this missile project appears to be the latest step in that process.

The report draws together an overall picture based on the latest developments in the evolution of a regional, American-led missile defense system, one that aims to tie the individual systems operated by each Gulf state together into a single, larger, unified system. The Obama administration proposed the creation of a regular ‘US-GCC Strategic Cooperation Forum’ last year partly to help smooth the process. The first meeting was held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in March 2012, when Secretary Clinton met with leaders from the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain.

At present, the UAE and Saudi Arabia operate the latest version of Patriot air-defense missiles, while Kuwait signed an agreement to purchase them from the US in July. The newest, most advanced systems in the region will be located in the UAE, which purchased the latest system to come off the assembly line in the US, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)—a combination of interceptor missiles and guidance radars—late last year. In total, the NYT claims that the UAE has purchased $12bn of missile defense systems in the last four years, which presumably will make it the lynchpin of any regional system.

[inset_left]The development of American ballistic missile defenses has been dogged by failures[/inset_left]

The physical infrastructure of regional missile defense is complex. Rather than being geared towards large, nuclear-armed Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) such as those in the arsenals of the US and Russia, the new system is designed to intercept smaller, short-range weapons like the Scud, and the Shahab fielded by Iran. To detect the launch of hostile missiles, the US has announced it will install a specialized, long-range X-Band radar system in Qatar to complement one already based in Israel. This will apparently also complement the THAAD purchased by the UAE. Once a hostile missile launch is detected, its progress will be tracked and missiles launched to intercept it while it is falling to its target, known as the terminal phase. Both the latest version of the Patriot missile (the PAC-3) and the newer, longer-ranged THAAD are ‘kinetic kill’ weapons, without large warheads, designed to destroy their targets by colliding with them at high speed. A system with the same mission is utilized by the US Navy, known as Aegis, and is deployed aboard some of its warships stationed in the Gulf. It incorporates a combination of advanced missiles and radars, upgraded versions of a system originally designed to defend American aircraft carriers from Soviet attack.

However, simply acquiring the hardware may not be enough to guarantee success. To be effective, the patchwork of individual missile batteries and radars supplied over the years by the US to the GCC states will have to be networked together into a single, integrated, comprehensive system. As the NYT notes, this will present both a technical and a political challenge. To date, the GCC member states have a poor record of genuine co-operation in military affairs, with several states reluctant to dilute or surrender control of their own military assets by incorporating them into a larger structure. The Peninsula Shield Force, for example, a joint military unit, was set up in 1984 with contingents from each member state but proved to be ineffective in the confrontation with Iraq in 1990-91 and has been hampered by co-ordination problems according to some observers. It remains to be seen if prodding from the US (which Secretary Clinton and her more junior colleagues have doubtless been doing behind the scenes) and fear of Iranian progress in nuclear and missile development will change this.

The US may also encounter problems integrating ground-based systems based in the territory of its allies with those of its warships. Though many of the systems have been designed with this task in mind, it remains to be seen whether such a complex process will throw up unforeseen technical problems. The task of the missile defense systems is also extraordinarily difficult. They are designed to intercept warheads close to their targets, which is the time in their flight that presents the biggest challenge: hitting a relatively small target, moving at extremely high speed, on very short notice. The development of American ballistic missile defenses has consequently been dogged by failures, technical hurdles and ballooning budgets. The poor performance of older versions of the Patriot missile against Iraqi Scuds in the 1991 Gulf War for instance proved to be a costly embarrassment for the US armed forces.

To be a credible deterrent, the system will have to be proven to work consistently. Overall, it remains to be seen if the US and its allies will be able to overcome the serious technical and political challenges inherent in the task they have set themselves, despite the enormous investments both the US and the GCC have already made in equipment, to say nothing of whether or not the threat from Iran truly justifies it.