Early warning capabilities remain strategic for GCC
DUBAI - The air-threats environment evolving around the Arabian Gulf is characterised by a sustained proliferation of air and missile threats. Missile programmes in Iran, Syria, and Yemen represent the pre-eminent threats in the regional context and more broadly Israel maintains an advanced strategic missile capability.
Additionally, India and Pakistan possess sophisticated missile programmes, which, although not a direct threat to the Arab Gulf, are an important dynamic in the regional balance of power.
However, armed non-state actors such as Hezbollah, the Houthis and Hamas have developed asymmetric warfare strategies centred on the use of rockets and short-range missiles. These trends are likely to become more pronounced in the next decade.
Outfitted with more effective counter-countermeasure capabilities, navigation systems that are not only more accurate but designed to outsmart air defence systems and warheads outfitted with more sophisticated explosives and detonation techniques, emerging air threats pose an unprecedented challenge to regional air defences.
The evolving air-threats environment presents three particularly complex challenges: tactical and medium-range ballistic missiles that can be launched from mobile platforms; cruise missiles that can be programmed to fly at high-altitude or exploit terrain-masking techniques to evade detection; and remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) that can be employed to deliver payloads (including chemical and biological agents) or provide covert surveillance and intelligence-gathering.
Increasingly, missiles, rockets and RPAs are designed to be launched from mobile platforms, such as ground vehicles and naval vessels to make countermeasures less effective because they can reduce the time to react.
Amid these developments, more dangerous trends are making their way into the threat picture. This includes multiple independent re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), which increase the probability of success of ballistic missiles by enabling a single missile to target multiple sites or hit a single objective multiple times, improving stealth features achieved through the application of radar cross-section (RCS) reduction techniques, as well as greater range and flying speeds.
In addressing these challenges, the strategic focus for Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states will remain anchored in developing long-range early warning capabilities that can provide effective round-the-clock situational awareness. GCC air defences increasingly need to harness configurations of ground-based, airborne and space-based sensors systems as well as address the critical need to integrate systems operated at the national level into a regional architecture.
Recognition of the need for a regionally integrated early warning network is not new — Saudi Arabia planned for this with the Peace Shield programme in the 1990s. The Saudi Peace Shield laid the foundations of the early warning capability operated by Saudi Arabia today but was not able to achieve the regional effect that was its long-term intention.
Since then, Saudi Arabia has enhanced its early warning capabilities with upgrades of its Boeing E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control (AWAC) aircraft and may have quietly bought another airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft.
However, Saudi requirements for long-range early warning capabilities have grown substantially and Riyadh is expected to pursue extensive new acquisitions.
The United Arab Emirates has taken the regional lead in developing air and missile defences. In November, it expanded its fleet of Saab Erieye AEW&C aircraft and has become the first international operator of the Terminal High Altitude Air Defence (THAAD) system. The UAE operates the upgraded PAC-3 systems and is soon to become the first country to receive the MQ-1 Predator RPA. The UAE is actively pursuing a space-based layer to its strategic early warning capabilities.
More widely, the Patriot system is deployed in Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar — Oman is expected to make purchases of a similar-category system soon — but air defence requires quantity as well as quality so GCC states can be expected to follow the UAE in making important air defence-related acquisitions over the next decade.
Future GCC air-defence acquisitions need to serve regional integration goals and overcome technical and legal obstacles of technology-use restrictions imposed by the United States.
The cost and complexity of developing a regionally integrated early warning network to support GCC air defence is high and demands that international partners provide access to technologies and technical assistance more openly and proactively to facilitate integration and interoperability.
Fortunately, the United States, which has a range of its own air defence assets deployed in-region, has realised the need for deeper GCC integration at operational and planning levels. The question is how far and fast the United States is willing to act as a catalyst.