DUBAI — Despite a strong US push, development of an integrated Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ballistic missile defense program has seen little progress over the past two years.
A specialist team of GCC ballistic missile defense representatives met Aug. 3-6 in Kuwait to coordinate the development of the program, according to a Kuwaiti Armed Forces statement.
"Such periodic meetings [are] aimed at achieving greater coordination and harmony, unifying efforts as well as experience sharing between the leaders of the air defense corps of the Gulf Cooperation Council," said Kuwaiti Armed Forces Brig Gen Adel Hadrami, chairman of the meeting.
The meeting, according to the head of the GCC General Secretariat for Military Affairs, Lt. Col. Abdullah Al Tunaiji, was aimed at achieving a unified working system among GCC countries.
"These meetings contribute to strengthening the GCC joint action and work to achieve a unified working system for the GCC countries," Al Tunaiji said, according to the statement released by the Kuwaiti Armed Forces.
Despite these efforts, a GCC source told Defense News that no agreement was reached among the representatives in Kuwait.
"A large part of the discussion was with regards to the establishment of a command-and-control center in Abu Dhabi," the source said, on condition of anonymity
"The center was nominated to be operated by Saudi personnel, however, not all member states agreed to that and refused to submit control of their air defenses," the source added.
Last year, GCC air defense commanders said at the Middle East Missile Defence Symposium that failure to implement the system has been blamed on international policies that have hampered integration by military commanders.
Brig. Gen. Majed Al Nuaimi, commander of the UAE Air Force and Air Missile Defence Brigade at the time, told audiences that interoperability restrictions between GCC countries, NATO countries and the US prevent data-sharing and limit training.
"Preventing partner countries from sharing data with friendly forces impacts the development of an integrated system," Al Nuaimi said. "The current policies limit our training capabilities and foreign disclosure policies need to be reviewed to enhance our bilateral training needs."
Interoperability policy changes will enable forces to practice the rules of engagement and develop coalition tactics, techniques and procedures, he added.
"The regional threat is real and growing, building a regional [missile defense] capability can't be fully achieved without interoperability between our regional and allies forces," Al Nuaimi said.
The failure to implement BMD cooperation across the gulf has many facets, said Michael Elleman, consulting senior fellow for regional security cooperation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
"It is true that US export restrictions have thus far made it difficult for the gulf states to integrate the BMD systems they have, or are in the process of acquiring. However, the overall process of integrating BMD assets across the GCC does not begin with connecting the various systems. Rather, the GCC states must first develop a coherent strategic vision of what the integrated system must do," he said.
"From there, guidance policy must be developed, harmonized procurement strategies and plans must be put in place, critical asset lists [i.e. priority of protection], CONOPS and so on. Once these are in place, the gulf states would then be faced with physically connecting the systems/kits. Their complaints, while valid and justified, are not responsible," he added.
The meeting in Kuwait is a positive sign, Elleman said, one that suggests gulf officials are serious about moving forward.
"The challenges are real and will be difficult to overcome, but I am cautiously optimistic that minor goals will be achieved here and there. But I would not expect any major initiatives, though I'd be delighted if I was wrong."
According to Riad Kahwaji, CEO of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA), the integration of defense systems is a political decision before anything else.
"If this will does not exist the integration will not take place. Some GCC states, like Oman, do not want to have an integrated missile defense because they believe it will antagonize Iran and they do not want to do this," he said.
"There are issues related to sovereignty that are yet to be resolved on the political level, like who decides when to shoot down an incoming missile: The targeted country or the country that the ballistic missile is flying over?" Kahwaji added.
Despite the lack of a unified missile defense shield, individually, the GCC has a multilayered approach to missile defense. GCC countries share Patriot systems and Pantsir-S1 Russian anti-aircraft missile-gun systems.
In addition, the UAE in December 2011 purchased two Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems for $1.96 billion.
Saudi Arabia recently signed a $5.4 billion deal to upgrade its air-defense net from PAC-2 Patriots to PAC-3 systems.
The kingdom also possesses MIM-23B Improved Hawk and French AMX-30SA batteries and has expressed some interest in THAAD, as has Qatar.
While program integration has been delayed, Kahwaji warned that Iran has been steadily developing its ballistic missile capabilities.
"Iran is still building ballistic missiles and its problems with the GCC are not over. So as long as the threat [exists], the GCC states will continue to develop their defense capabilities. Besides, the deal with Iran tackled only its nuclear program. Iran's other problems with its neighbors and the West, including its missile arsenal, were not resolved," he said.
Elleman stressed that ballistic missile defense is needed now and for the foreseeable future.
"Missiles are Iran's only means for delivering extra-territorial strikes, they are a fundamental component of Iran's strategic posture, and I do not see this changing in the next decade," he said.
"Recall that under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Agreement, Iran will be allowed to import missile technologies in roughly eight years. I do not think anything will fundamentally change. The major suppliers of advanced missile tech are all members of the Missile Technology Control Regime, so they have a responsibility to deny exporting to any non-member states, including Iran," he added.
Progress will be very slow until the leaders of the GCC states decide they are willing to make the concessions needed to establish a joint military capability, Elleman said.