Integrated Air and Missile Defense Will Enhance Security in the Middle East

Integrated Air and Missile Defense Will Enhance Security in the Middle East

Integrated air and missile defense will make America’s partners in the Persian Gulf safer and bolster America’s policy against Iran. It's past time to make IAMD a priority.


To be clear, this requires significant diplomatic work by the State Department (there’s a lot of technical detail, legal jargon, and bureaucracy in this process that will be time-consuming and unfamiliar to Gulf Arab nations), but it’s necessary.

However, a more fundamental challenge than this specific defense agreement with Washington is the Gulf Arab nations’ attitude toward national security in general and missile defense in particular. There must be a cultural shift on this vital issue for it to work.


Until Gulf Arab leaders fully absorb in their national security thinking and effectively incorporate into their national security planning the notion that interdependence, not just interoperability, is the cornerstone of their survival and wellbeing, Iran will continue to have a strategic upper hand. Riyadh, for example, must realize that Qatari security is Saudi security, just as Abu Dhabi must come to terms with the fact that Qatari security is Emirati security, and so on and so forth.

Gulf Cooperation Council relations have improved in the aftermath of the January 2021 AlUla Summit. The political feud of the past three years in which the Saudis, the Bahrainis, and the Emiratis severed diplomatic ties with the Qataris has drastically subsided. But are the Gulf Arabs at a point now where they can seriously discuss collective defense measures like they’ve never done before? It’s not unreasonable to be skeptical.

It’s one thing for Doha, for example, to detect a missile launch heading to Riyadh and be able to instantly tell the Saudi leadership about it through a regional IAMD system. It’s another altogether for the Qataris to shoot down the missile with their own interceptors before it even hits its Saudi target.

This kind of cooperation would be ideal. It’s exactly how joint missile defense is constructed in NATO and between the United States and its other treaty allies including the South Koreans and the Japanese, but it’s probably unrealistic in the Gulf for now.

Sharing radar and satellite sensor data across the region’s military forces already would be a huge leap. Discussing national fire control and possibly allocating fire data (i.e., who’s shooting at what and with how many interceptors?) are even bigger ones, considering the fact that the Gulf Arab states have, naturally, unequal capabilities and different assets to protect. 

An equally challenging philosophical shift must take place in Washington. Even if the United States and its Gulf Arab friends somehow learn from their strategic blunders and succeed in building IAMD, deterrence could still fail. What happens then?

After all, Iran demonstrated in 2019 that it is perfectly capable of overwhelming its regional adversaries’ defenses through concentrated salvos, decoys, guided missiles, and other means. Should there be another Iranian attack, would there be an element of “deterrence by punishment?” Would the United States and its Gulf Arab partners jointly respond to Iranian aggression by employing offensive measures?

This is the crux of the matter. IAMD is crucial for Gulf security and the future of the U.S.-Gulf partnership, but it’s not enough. Hardware and technology will never substitute for strategic consultation between Washington and Gulf Arab capitals about various Iran-centric contingencies.

This type of contingency planning was not possible and frankly not worth doing in the past because the Gulf Arabs had no serious defensive and offensive capabilities. But now, at least some of them do. It makes perfect sense to integrate aspects of their military power into U.S. operational planning.

If that integration occurs, which is the heaviest political lift of all, it will create an even more powerful and credible deterrent against Iran. Common purpose, coupled with unity of action and joint capabilities (what NATO constantly preaches) don’t have to be unthinkable in the Gulf region. The time is now for the Biden administration to push for these processes, even if in a gradual fashion.

Bilal Y. Saab is Senior Fellow and Director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute. He is the author of the forthcoming book Rebuilding Arab Defense: U.S. Security Cooperation in the Middle East, to be published by Lynne Rienner Publishers in May 2022.

Image: Reuters.