U.S.-Gulf Vision 2040: Fully Integrated Gulf Security
The circumstances may finally be right to achieve a longstanding objective: designing a system of integrated Gulf defenses to protect mutual national security interests.
Last year was a tumultuous one for the relationship between the United States and its key security partners in the Gulf. Each side was disappointed by the other, and the resulting disagreements spilled out into the public instead of being quietly resolved behind closed doors. Diplomatic differences have resonated politically in all capitals, further limiting the ability of each side to be seen as offering concessions to the other. It’s not difficult to imagine these long-enduring partnerships falling away completely in the coming years through neglect, if not intent. And yet, the circumstances may finally be right to achieve a longstanding objective—designing a system of integrated Gulf defenses that protects mutual national security interests on a sustainable basis. Leaders need to recognize this and take advantage of the opportunity.
During periods like these, it is important to recall the national security interests that have long bound the United States and the Gulf. Those fundamental interests have not changed, and the primary question before policymakers is whether chosen policies serve to secure those interests or undermine them.
The United States has a vital interest in ensuring that no regional adversary has both the capacity and the will to attack the U.S. homeland, Americans abroad, or the key security partners Washington relies on for local intelligence, placement, access, and diplomatic support to advance this and other core interests. This drives U.S. efforts to combat terrorism in the region and to deter adversaries from seeking weapons of mass destruction and otherwise employing destabilizing military capabilities. Today, the Iranian regime checks all the boxes: it’s the world’s most prominent state sponsor of terrorism, it’s pursuing an inherently threatening nuclear program, and—alone among all of the governments in the world—it routinely gives advanced precision weaponry to nonstate actors and directs them to target civilians across borders. The United States and its Gulf partners share a vital national security interest in combating these malign behaviors and have thus worked toward those ends ever since the 1979 revolution allowed the Iranian regime to seize power.
The United States also has a vital interest in the global price of oil, for reasons that span security considerations (oil’s centrality to the functioning of our military), economic considerations (the impact of oil prices on growth and inflation), geopolitical considerations (our partners elsewhere who depend on oil sourced from the Gulf) and political considerations (the impact of gas prices at home and abroad). Despite campaign trail rhetoric about American “energy independence,” once in office, U.S. presidents in both parties discover, to their frustration, that they must care deeply about oil prices, especially when they get too high or too low.
It is also a stubborn fact that the market price of this global commodity remains disproportionately driven by actions taken in the Gulf, especially by Saudi Arabia. This reality is unlikely to change materially for decades to come, even under the most optimistic energy transition scenarios. Given this, the United States long ago decided that protecting the free flow of oil from the Gulf to locations determined by market demand—a historically atypical anti-mercantilist approach—would best protect that core interest. Today, again, the primary threat to this interest is Tehran, which openly threatens—and, indeed, has used—military force against both energy production facilities and the vessels that carry oil out of the Gulf. And, once more, this U.S. policy has aligned with the vital interests of its partners in the region.
While these interests remain constant, both the threats to them and the means to protect them change over time. Thus, U.S. and Gulf policies also need to shift, both in response to and in anticipation of these evolving threats.
The most important change in the regional threat assessment is Iran’s homegrown development of highly capable precision weaponry that can be used to strike targets at a distance with pinpoint accuracy. This is what allowed Tehran to strike Saudi energy infrastructure in 2019 and allowed its proxy to kill innocents at the Abu Dhabi airport in 2022. The inherent value of these weapons was clearly demonstrated when Russia requested Iranian assistance in Ukraine, a remarkable break from Russia’s proud tradition of military self-reliance and a complete reversal of the situation in Syria in 2015, when Russian air power came to the aid of Iranian-backed ground forces. Moreover, these weapons’ precision serves to lower the threshold for their use in the Gulf, as we have already witnessed, thus raising the risk of unintended escalation.
Our partners in the Gulf are also building their own military capabilities. In the past, the United States was required to provide the near entirety of the military forces needed to protect the free flow of energy from the Gulf. Today, and even more so in the years ahead, our local partners will be increasingly capable of sharing this burden. Even more significantly, given the nature of these new weapons systems and the realities imposed by the region’s geography, U.S. partners in the Gulf have begun to appreciate the benefit—indeed the necessity—of launching a more cooperative approach toward defensive measures. For far too long, intra-Gulf rivalries prevented such an approach. But today, there is a growing recognition that each nation cannot unilaterally secure its own airspace and maritime interests. Moreover, the expansion of relations following the Abraham Accords and the transfer of the U.S. military area of responsibility for Israel from U.S. European Command to U.S. Central Command is driving new opportunities for security cooperation within the Gulf and beyond.
Given these dynamics, the door is finally open to build a multilateral, fully integrated air and missile defense system, and to achieve far greater multilateral cooperation within the established maritime security structures. U.S. military planners have long recognized the potential utility of such steps in protecting the above-mentioned national security interests, but the circumstances have not allowed them to proceed. Now they are.
Encouraging initial steps are already being taken at the most senior levels, but there is a very long way to go before the journey is anywhere close to complete. The U.S. Fifth Fleet launched Task Force 59 to integrate unmanned systems over a year ago, and secret talks reportedly took place last March among military leaders from Israel, the United States, and key Arab countries. Little is said publicly on the subject, but USCENTCOM commander Gen. Michael Kurilla has indicated that this subject is a priority, and Fifth Fleet commander Vice Adm. Brad Cooper has set a goal of having 100 unmanned surface vessels in the Gulf by this summer, only one-fifth of which will be from the United States. President Joe Biden privately raised the issue of integrated defenses during his trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia in July 2022, and reports have since been published about plans for a future Red Sands Integrated Experimentation Center and hopes for a proposed Middle East Air Defense Alliance. Moreover, the year ended with the Deterring Enemy Forces and Enabling National Defenses Act, driven by a bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers, which will provide the necessary funding for such an endeavor.
Of course, none of this progress has been lost on Tehran, which has issued public threats of a “decisive response to the nearest and most accessible targets” should the Gulf agree to “a joint defense pact in the region by the U.S. with [the] participation and hidden management of Zionists.” Of course, such threats are exactly why the United States and its partners should build a system of fully integrated defenses in the Gulf. Getting there will require four fundamental policy decisions.
The first and most critical policy decision is for the United States to commit to a future in which it remains intimately bound to Gulf security. In previous decades, such commitments could be made privately or remain within the purview of military and security professionals. Today, however, the single most important factor in the region, driving decisions by partners and adversaries alike, is the widespread perception of America’s withdrawal from the Gulf. Therefore, the above-mentioned quiet diplomacy on integrated air, missile, and maritime security is now insufficient. A public case needs to be made for a new security relationship between the United States and its Gulf partners, and it must be designed to receive bipartisan support.
Of course, American domestic politics makes doing so a tall order in the wake of an unsatisfying war in Iraq, a failed war in Afghanistan, the enduring resonance of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the involvement of Middle East leaders in U.S. domestic politics, and the continuing public sniping and policy differences between the U.S. and Gulf leaders. Unless these dynamics are reversed, they threaten to eventually turn the region’s expectation of a U.S. withdrawal into a self-fulfilling prophecy. But reversing this perception is nevertheless needed to protect U.S. interests. This cannot be accomplished if American presidents threaten to turn our partners into “pariahs” or openly question whether the United States should protect the free flow of energy.