Since June, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), a Department of Defense agency that oversees security assistance programs, has notified Congress of an estimated USD 13 billion in upcoming arms sales to the Middle East and North Africa region. These sales are coordinated through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. According to Ed Ross, a former DSCA director of operations, the sales were “originally intended to beef up deterrence vis-à-vis Iran,” but given the recent instability in the region and uncertainty about the behavior of the Assad regime in Syria, there is also an emphasis on “helping our friends and partners defend themselves from instability.” Recent events in the region coupled with the notifications to Congress of these possible sales warrant examination of current and anticipated missile defense capabilities in the region.
Existing missile defense capabilities
Israel employs a robust missile defense system with two major components. The Arrow Interceptor System was first declared operational in 2000, and was designed to defend against long-range ballistic missiles from countries such as Syria and Iran. Arrow was most recently upgraded and tested successfully in February 2013. Iron Dome, a battery system that targets rockets with a more modest range of approximately 4 to 70 kilometers (designed to shoot down rockets launched from the West Bank and Gaza), was conceived in 2007 and first deployed in October 2011. The true capabilities of the Iron Dome are subject to debate, with Israeli officials touting an extremely high success rate in testing and many weapons experts doubting these claims.
One of the most sophisticated missile defense systems deployed throughout the region is the PATRIOT surface-to-air missile system, used also by the United States and NATO. Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel all possess their own Patriot missiles. In early June, CENTCOM ordered one Patriot missile battery (along with several F-16 fighters) moved to Jordan not only for a scheduled military exercise, but for insurance against the deployment of both conventional and chemical weapons in Syria. Likewise, Turkey received its first two Patriot missile batteries in January 2013 to defend itself from any fallout from the Syrian civil war, along with approximately 400 U.S. military personnel to support the transition. The shipment was complimented by an additional four batteries provided by the Netherlands and Germany.
Anticipated capabilities, based on notifications
One element of the package is a request by the Qatari government for one A/N FPS-132 Block 5 Early Warning Radar (EWR). Contracted to the U.S. Raytheon Company and valued at slightly more than USD one billion, this radar and its support system are intended to “provide a permanent defensive capability to the Qatar Peninsula.” Analysts argue that the sale will also be valuable to the U.S., given that as many as 5,000 U.S. military personnel staff at the Al-Udeid Air and As-Saliyah Army bases located outside of Doha would be protected by the new technology.
Another major recipient of the proposed deals is Iraq. Though Iraq already has limited radar capability and archaic anti-aircraft technology, the proposed package is worth over USD two billion, and will include Avenger Fire Units to mount on Humvees, handheld FIM-92 Stingers, HAWK XXI batteries, and support equipment. These improvements are intended to aid Iraq in managing its airspace, particularly with respect to disrupting Iranian supply lines to Syria.
Strengthening partner missile defense systems, particularly in the Gulf, has been a strategic priority for the U.S. since 2010. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a meeting of GCC leaders, “We can do even more to defend the Gulf through cooperation on ballistic missile defenses.” A continual process of building and upgrading these systems in the Gulf seems likely given the counterweight of the GCC states against the presumed political and nuclear ambitions of Iran and the current unrest in the region. Uzi Rubin writes for Diplomacy and Foreign Affairs that “if and when a nuclear confrontation will emerge in the Middle East, strategic defense will already be in place.” What impact the proliferation of sophisticated missile defense systems will have on the regional balance of power ultimately remains to be seen.