Saudi THAAD deal is a regional game changer

THAAD is designed to stop missiles at the beginning of their terminal descent at very high altitudes.
Sunday 09/12/2018
Best-in-class. A US Army Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) weapon system at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. (US Army)
Best-in-class. A US Army Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) weapon system at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. (US Army)

DUBAI - Saudi Arabia and the United States are in late stages of discussions regarding the sale of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system, which was principally agreed to more than a year ago.

With formalities of the sale largely settled, Royal Saudi Air Defence operators will be looking to receive the first of seven THAAD systems ordered by as early as 2020.

THAAD is the United States’ newest and most advanced ballistic missile defence system and Saudi Arabia would be the second international customer after the United Arab Emirates, which ordered the system in 2011. Both of the Emirates’ THAAD systems have been operational since 2016.

Riyadh’s and Abu Dhabi’s acquisitions were driven by the threat of Iran’s ballistic missile programme. Iran conducted a missile test on December 1 which, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, involved a “medium-range ballistic missile that’s capable of carrying multiple warheads.”

The test was a timely reminder of the regional missile threat and confirmed intelligence estimates that Iran’s capabilities were becoming more sophisticated. Another concern is Iran’s readiness to share missiles or technical assistance with partners, including non-state actors such as Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthis, accelerating regional missile proliferation.

The Arab Gulf is acutely aware of ballistic missile threats, having witnessed the Iraqi invasion of Iran and Kuwait, in which Scud missiles featured prominently. Technology has improved considerably since then and today’s generation of ballistic missiles are much more powerful, accurate and difficult to defend against.

THAAD offers a strategic defence capability. Its cutting-edge technologies are considered “best-in-class” against advanced ballistic missile threats.

THAAD is designed to stop missiles at the beginning of their terminal descent at very high altitudes. Its interceptor weapon, the SM-3, is a hypersonic “hit-to-kill” missile that can travel faster than 9,000 kph and has a range of 150km.

Jane’s intelligence service reported that each of THAAD units includes highly advanced AN/TPY-2 radar, mobile tactical stations, launchers and SM-3 interceptor missiles. The acquisition of THAAD propels Saudi Arabia’s defence into a new era and with it the Arab Gulf region’s security.

Integrated Air and Missile Defence (IAMD) has been a longstanding goal of partners in the Arab Gulf and Saudi Arabia’s THAAD acquisition is likely to be a catalyst to kick-start the transformation towards a regional missile shield.

The idea behind regional IAMD is to optimise capability by pooling resources and positioning assets to improve reaction times and make defence operations more effective. Riyadh potentially adding seven units of THAAD could make the Arab Gulf capable of defending more effectively, quickly and across a much greater coverage against potential missile attacks.

Missile defence systems deployed in the Arab Gulf, such as the Patriot system — both the PAC-2 and the upgraded PAC-3 — in Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman, have a great deal of commonality in technology and operational approaches. Theatre-deployed US assets add additional layers of defence and operational robustness to the region’s own missile defence assets.

Such developments allow conditions to improve for a regional missile shield in the next few years. Saudi Arabia has also had serious interest in the ship-based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defence System, which is an integral component of US-European missile defence.

Even as it stands, the introduction of new naval vessels with advanced sensing and communication capabilities will see Arab Gulf navies playing much greater roles in supporting air and missile defence, led by the Royal Saudi Navy.

Future acquisitions of unmanned aerial vehicles, such as the Predator-XP already operated by the UAE, will help the Arab Gulf renew and modernise the technological foundation it needs to support air and missile defence against increasingly advanced ballistic missile threats.

Riyadh’s and Washington’s ties are reinforced with the sale of THAAD and military-to-military relations will inevitably become deeper as a result. Saudi Arabia’s clout and the size of its growing missile defence capabilities are sufficient to drive the process of regional IAMD and the acquisition of THAAD is a milestone in those efforts.