Home / Articles / Middle East Missile Race: The Missile Defense Review, Iran, and the Implications for the Gulf
After months of delay, the U.S. Department of Defense released the Missile Defense Review (MDR) in January 2019. The document will guide American missile defense initiatives and programs during the coming decade. As the MDR makes clear, missile defense has become a key point of bilateral cooperation between Arab militaries, their counterparts in the United States, and a critical component of the broader U.S.-Gulf Arab effort to address concerns about Iranian missile development. For the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), this means fielding more capable missile defense along with more precise “left of launch” capabilities to strike Iranian missiles before they are fired. The Islamic Republic has, in turn, sought capabilities to defeat improved Arab and American capabilities. These dynamics portend continued tensions in the Gulf and suggest reciprocal, tit-for-tat missile developments in the region.
The Trump administration has, like many of its predecessors, tried to fully integrate the GCC militaries into a collective security organization, loosely modeled on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In a recent speech at the American University in Cairo, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on the GCC, Egypt, and Jordan to reach agreement on the Middle East Strategic Alliance, a security partnership geared towards common defense from Iran. Despite Riyadh and Abu Dhabi sharing the President Trump’s hawkish views about the Iranian threat, his administration has struggled to overcome the deep intra-Arab rivalries to reach agreement on a collective security agreement. The MDR, too, has sketched out the oft-stated and long-standing American effort to develop a region-wide early warning and missile defense capability. However, these negotiations have also failed in the past—and efforts to fully integrate the region’s growing number of anti-air and missile systems are likely to go unfulfilled.
Despite these challenges, individual GCC states remain committed to purchasing and fielding Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) anti-missile systems. These two systems are designed for different purposes: Patriot is designed for point defense from medium-range ballistic missiles (which have ranges between 1,000 and 3,000 km), whereas THAAD can defend a larger area and engage faster flying intermediate-range ballistic missiles (3,000 to 5,500 km range). Saudi Arabia has deployed Patriot, has committed to upgrading its current missiles to the most advanced PAC-3 interceptor, and has expressed interest in THAAD. The United Arab Emirates, too, has purchased Patriot and deployed the more advanced PAC-3 version to a staging base in Djibouti to protect its forces from Houthi missile attack. Emirati forces also operate THAAD. Qatar will soon begin operating Patriot and hosts a U.S. TPY-2 radar, which is used to track and cue missile interceptors, while Kuwait has operated (and hosted) Patriot for decades.
The proliferation of ballistic missile defense has prompted Iranian countermoves, designed to ensure that its missiles can defeat U.S.-made defenses. To do so, Iran is pursuing four distinct approaches. First, Tehran is investing in more short- and medium-range missiles, which when fired in large numbers would overwhelm and defeat the comparatively smaller number of missile defense systems deployed. Second, Iran is experimenting with creative and asymmetric approaches to attack missile defense radars, including with low-tech, off-the-shelf drones that have reportedly been used in Yemen to target Patriot radars. Third, recent imagery from a Qiam missile launch in September 2018 shows small fins at the base of the re-entry vehicle, which could possibly indicate an interest in developing some late-stage maneuvering capabilities to defeat terminal missile defense, or, at the very least, to improve stability and increase precision. Finally, the Islamic Republic remains interested in the further development of cruise missiles. These missiles fly low to the ground and, therefore, pose a challenge for missile defenses designed to track and engage targets flying a ballistic trajectory.
There are also indications that Iran is more confident using its ballistic missiles. In June 2017, Iran fired 6 missiles at targets in Syria, two, of which, the solid-fuel Zolfaqhar missile, hit impact points in Mayadeen, a small town the Islamic State formerly held in eastern Syria. To monitor battle damage, and then for propaganda purposes, Iran filmed the impacts with a Shahed-129 drone deployed in Syria, as part of the Iranian support given to the Syrian regime. Following the strike in Syria, Iran used ballistic missiles to strike the headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDP-I) in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The Islamic Republic has also transferred the Qiam ballistic missile to the Houthis in Yemen and has struck targets throughout the Kingdom, including Riyadh.
The war in Yemen has underscored the difficulty of finding and targeting mobile missiles before they are launched. The Saudi-led coalition has the tools to search for missiles on the ground, but the Houthis have still managed to fire Qiam missiles at least eight times since July 2017 without being detected from the air. Despite these challenges, it is important for the defender to include counterforce, specifically the ability to target missiles before they are launched, in the broader effort to defend against missile attack. For Iran, the lessons-lessons-learned from the first Gulf War, when the United States dedicated considerable resources (albeit with limited success) to find and attack Iraqi Scud missiles before they were launched, probably informed thinking about future missile development. Despite the challenges the U.S. faced in actually finding Iraqi Scuds, investments to ensure that missiles remain survivable from detection and air attack in the future, when U.S. sensors and capabilities are certain to improve, probably drove Iranian interests in fielding a more mobile missile force.
In the late-1990s, the Emirati Air Force purchased the Franco-British air-launched cruise missile SCALP/Storm Shadow for Mirage and Tornado aircraft—a useful weapon to target air defense sites and to hit targets of convenience at long range. Following the Emirati purchase, Saudi Arabia purchased the same missile in the mid-2000s. As Jeffrey Lewis noted, the United States objected to the sale of the missile to the UAE in the 1990s because it violated the voluntary guidelines under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which established a common presumption against the export of missiles capable of carrying a 500 kg payload to more than 300 km. The United States was less vocal in its criticism of the Saudi purchase, but that appears to be linked to the fact that the United Kingdom kept the sale under wraps and never talked much about it.
However, as is the case with the spread of missile defense, it appears as if the spread of more accurate cruise missiles for countries in the Gulf has sparked an Iranian counter, focused on the development of solid-fueled missiles. This fuel type is more operationally flexible than liquid fuel because solid-fueled missiles can be stored and transported fully fueled without the larger supporting infrastructure needed to fire liquid-fueled missiles. One benefit, of course, is that the aerial signature for solid-fueled missiles is much smaller, which makes them harder to hit before launch. Iran’s interests in solid-fueled missiles, like the Zolfaqhar, may be indicative of the missile race in the region, wherein each side’s effort to counter the other prompts further technological developments to offset any advantage.
As the United States develops strategies for regional missile defense, and announces plans in the MDR about how to use missile defense to enhance partnerships with regional allies, it is worth noting how the Islamic Republic has responded to incremental American changes in strategy. Rather than try to overcome U.S. technological dominance, Iran is using low-cost means to counter sophisticated defenses and developing missiles to try to evade ever-more capable precision-guided weapons and sophisticated sensors. This is certain to continue, given that the Gulf Arab element of the MDR repeats the long-standing American effort to make regional defenses more capable—an entirely reasonable strategy, but one destined to invite countermoves by Iran. Over the longer term, the importance of missiles for national defense—whether for offense or defense—shows little signs of abating. Instead, recent events in Iran and the Gulf underscore how important missiles are becoming for a wide swathe of countries’ self-defined national security priorities. These dynamics point to a near-term missile race in the Middle East, an outcome that could further destabilize a region rife with conflict.