Arab militaries adapt to ‘hybrid’ threats
Dubai - Heightening tensions and political polarisation characterised 2015 in the Middle East. With the perpetuation of the Assad regime in Syria, the consequential rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and instability in Yemen, Arab militaries witnessed a continuation of trends in threat dynamics generating a new category of security challenges. Their impact is becoming more evident in the defence posture and spending by Arab militaries.
Traditionally, Arab states approached defence in numbers — more personnel, vehicles, aircraft and essentially any type of military equipment. This generally translated into greater confidence in confronting prevailing threats. That was a justifiable approach to defence when the most serious threats to Arab states emanated simply from Israel or ideologically motivated regimes, all challenging the status quo and contending to inspire some manner of revolution, in an unstable neighbourhood.
Powerful, armed non-state threats employing unconventional and asymmetric military tactics represent serious threats alongside traditional ones. Arab militaries are re-posturing to prepare for hybrid wars, where a milieu of armed non-state actors will operate in unison with state actors. The emerging threat environment has far-reaching implications in defence planning for Arab states, especially as the Middle East again becomes a battleground in global power competition.
The rise of non-state actors presents new challenges given their preferred modus operandi, which typically avoids direct combat and instead employs tactics, techniques and procedures designed to keep them out of the line-of-sight. Hit-and-run operations, snipers, ambushes and improvised explosive devices, swarming, hostage-taking, torture, mass executions and embedding in civilian populations to maximise the chance of civilian deaths in an attempt to deter air targeting from enemies are all common among armed non-state actors.
Contending with hybrid threats requires a different approach to the challenge of traditional threats from state foes and priority has to be given to a different set of technical capabilities and likely mission profiles for military operators. For example, hybrid threat-focused forces typically prioritise manoeuverability over endurance, tactical intelligence-gathering over long-range, multi-domain surveillance, close-in air support over beyond visual range targeting and rapid deployment over maintaining a larger, more dynamic set of multi-mission capabilities.
Although US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter recently questioned the focus of Arab militaries on building up air power at the expense of investing more in ground force capabilities, Arab states are paying greater attention to the sort of capabilities required to meeting the type of emerging hybrid threat posed by ISIS and similar non-state actors bent on leading insurgency campaigns. Although Arab militaries will not discount or make redundant the other drivers to strategic defence posture and planning, there is a growing shift towards recalibrating defence capabilities.
Saudi Arabia is finalising a new purchase of heavy and light armoured vehicles, Sea Hawk helicopters with advanced precision rockets and procuring dozens of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from the United States. Riyadh has also ordered a number of Spydr aircraft, used by the United States to track Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. The Saudis are busy with a $1.29 billion effort to replenish inventories of laser-guided bombs and precision-strike warheads being depleted by ongoing operations in Yemen.
As the UAE mulls a new combat aircraft purchase, it is acquiring AgustaWestland AW609 search-and-rescue tilt-rotor aircraft, locally manufactured UAVs for intelligence-gathering. The UAE will become the first country to receive advanced Predator drones. Additionally, it has ordered 500 Nimr vehicles and upgrades for an existing fleet and is buying 80,000 type CAR 816 modern assault rifles as well as an acoustic hostile fire warning system for its ground forces.
Egypt bought two Mistral warships from France — each of which can carry 16 helicopters, four landing craft and 13 tanks. Egypt has also reportedly agreed to purchase 50 Kamov Ka-52 attack helicopters from Russia, believed to be deployed on the Mistrals. Egypt is acquiring additional AH-64D Apache attack helicopters from the United States as well as receiving upgrades for Abrams tanks.
Lebanon, in the midst of a $3 billion Saudi-funded modernisation programme, set to deliver armoured combat and transport vehicles, Cougar helicopters and corvettes. Lebanon has boosted its firepower by doubling its arsenal of howitzers and acquiring Caesar self-propelled guns, as well as air-launched Hellfire and TOW II missiles for the first time. Additionally, Cessna Caravan aircraft will provide Lebanon new airborne intelligence-gathering capabilities, supporting its purchase of six A-29 Super Tucano aircraft.
The most salient features of armament acquisitions in 2015 has been a movement towards gearing up for the threat of hybrid wars, which require a different approach and set of technical capabilities to traditional security threats. These developments are likely to become more pronounced as Arab militaries manoeuver to respond to an evolving threat environment where armed non-state actors grow in influence and insurgencies gain in intensity.