Early warning capabilities remain strategic for GCC

Friday 05/02/2016
Saudi border guards monitoring cameras and radars on surveillance screens

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.