U.S. Gulf Commander Pushes Allies in Region to Share Defenses

The Pentagon has backed billions of dollars in sales of U.S.-built missile interceptors and sensors to allies in the Middle East. Now, the top American general in the region is renewing long-frustrated efforts to develop a shared system to detect threats from Iran.

“What you really want, ultimately, is the ability to commonly share an operational picture across all” the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council and “for them to be able to act based on threat input,” General Kenneth McKenzie, the chief of U.S. Central Command, said in an interview. “In a perfect world you’d like to get to a point where you have a common operational picture and everybody sees that.”

U.S. Gulf Commander Pushes Allies in Region to Share Defenses

That would provide better targeting data for Patriot missile interceptors built by Lockheed Martin Corp. and Raytheon Technologies Corp. and, in the case of the United Arab Emirates, Lockheed’s Terminal High Altitude Air Defense system, or Thaad, which is cued by a powerful radar.

Coordination has been a goal since at least 2010, when McKenzie was Central Command’s director of strategy and plans, he said. Concern in the region about Iran’s recent developments in ballistic missiles “have sort of helped us a little bit move toward that goal” but “we are not there yet,” he said.

“Look, I’m not going to oversell it,” McKenzie said. “There are sovereignty issues. There are issues that are unique to each nation. And we’re not through all of those yet. But I think we’re in the best place we’ve been.”

Trust, Sharing

Even with an accelerating Iranian threat, establishing a integrated operating system requires GCC nations “to trust each other, and they’ve got to be willing to share that information,” he said.

Ken Katzman, the Middle East analyst for the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, said in an email that “political will among the Gulf states still seems lacking to make an integrated missile defense system a reality” even though the imperative for it has increased.

One obstacle has been tensions with Qatar. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and others cut off diplomatic relations and trade ties with Qatar in 2017 over accusations it supported militant groups and meddled in their internal affairs for years. Qatar denies the claims.

McKenzie acknowledged the rift has been a major obstacle to a regional integrated air defense system. Raytheon is building a major air defense early warning system for Qatar.

“That’s a hole that you’d like to be able to fix, because they purchased a lot of Patriot systems and they have a lot of very good high-end systems,” the general said. “And it would be good if we can integrate them.”

For now, the U.S. is developing bilateral sharing of missile defense information as a model for other GCC nations, McKenzie said. “We’re working with them and really sort of leading with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia first to demonstrate their capability, and they’re making some strides,” he said.

Michael Elleman, a missile defense analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said it remains to be seen “whether Saudi interest will lead to greater cooperation with UAE -- the other country that understands why integration is critical and has made tangible progress integrating its own air and missile defenses.”

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