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Carter Hits Gulf Allies for Prioritizing Air, Not Ground, Forces

December 1, 2015 (Photo Credit: MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Gulf Arab allies have focused too much on building up airpower and not enough on training and equipping competent ground forces, hindering the ability to go after the Islamic State group, US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter warned Congress Tuesday.

Carter, appearing before the House Armed Services Committee to talk about the fight against the group, which is also commonly known as ISIS or ISIL, also hit the Gulf nations, Turkey and European allies for not doing more in Syria and Iraq.

"The natural force in particularly the Sunni areas of Syria and Iraq would be Sunni Arabs, and a more effective and insightful kind of force," Carter said during his testimony. "They have been unwilling to field such forces."

In response to a question about why the Gulf nations are not doing more, Carter diverged into the topic of prioritization of defense equipment.

"I'm going to be very candid with you: Many of the Gulf States weigh air capabilities, air forces and so forth over ground forces and special operations forces," Carter said.

"If they want to — as we would wish them to — wield more influence in the Middle East and do more to secure this part of the world in which they live, they're going to need to do more of that on the ground," he continued. "Buying our airplanes is fine, and we provide them, but when it comes to ground forces and special operations forces, there is no question they need to build those forces and wield them."

"They frequently complain to me, for example, about how capable the Iranians are, to which I say 'yes, and you're not in the same game, an effective game on the ground,'" he said.

It is a bit of a shot across the bow toward regional allies, one that reflects a growing frustration in both the Pentagon and US Congress that the Gulf Cooperation Council nations have not done more inside Syria and Iraq.

While the US has been focused on fighting the Islamic State group inside Syria and Iraq, the Gulf nations have prioritized the Saudi-led fight in Yemen. At November's Dubai Airshow, officials from both the US and GCC nations tip-toed around the tensions, but Carter has increasingly been vocal about the need for regional partners to step up.

The Gulf nations have long had a reputation in industry as prioritizing high-end fighters over support systems, but there are indications that the last year of ongoing operations are starting to draw the GCC's attention towards other types of equipment.

At least one US CEO, Ellen Lord of Textron Systems, believes that ground forces in the region are set to get a boost.

"We do see many governments with interest in purchasing hundreds of tactical wheeled vehicles," Lord told Defense News in Dubai on Nov. 9. "I think you'll see things happen over the next 12 months."

Lord said the countries are becoming more aware of capability gaps now that they are using the equipment more frequently.

"That's the thing over the last year that has been a huge focus, and now what's going on in Yemen [and] what's going on in Syria is causing even more of that," she added. "But I think [that] really testing what's in inventory and seeing what's working and what doesn't work is also influencing decisions."

Turkey, Europe Must "Do More"

At various points in his testimony, Carter also poked at Europe and Turkey in an attempt to get those partners more involved in the operation, with all involved needing to "do more."

Carter acknowledged that the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris are driving the French to step up operations, and also noted that the United Kingdom is currently debating whether to engage in direct strikes in Syria. He said that the Germans, meanwhile, "appear certainly capable of doing more."

"We want them to do more," he said.

On the whole, Carter said that he hopes "that the Paris attacks galvanize all of Europe to do more, because they need to do more."

As for Turkey, Carter called for greater enforcement of the border to prevent supplies and individuals from getting to the Islamic State group, something that he said it "has not done effectively since ISIL first arose."

"We would like them to operate more both in the air and on the ground," he said. "Most of their air operations are not directed at ISIL. They are directed at the PKK,which we understand their concern about — it's a terrorist organization within their borders — but we would like to see them do more against ISIL."

"If they are not doing enough, it's a serious matter," he added.


Twitter: @AaronMehta

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