Aaron SteinA Gordian Knot: Missiles in the Gulf

Saudi Arabia made headlines recently, after it publicly paraded two DF-3s for the first time. The Kingdom secretly purchased these missiles from China in 1987, but has hitherto opted not to show them off in public. The consensus is that the Kingdom’s public display was intended to signal to Washington its current discomfort with the way the US has handled Syria, the Arab Spring, and the Iranian nuclear issue. In addition, the unveiling of the DF-3 also appears aimed at sending a message to Tehran about Riyadh’s capability to strike targets inside the Islamic Republic.

The Saudi decision, while interesting for Riyadhologists, is simply a reminder of the growing prevalence of ballistic and cruise missiles in the region. The concurrent  spread of these two systems will have important implications for Gulfee, Iranian, and US security interests moving forward. The DF-3 parade came on the heels of a missile defense conference in Abu Dhabi. At the conference, Frank Rose, US deputy assistant secretary of state for space and defense policy, indicated the United States’ intent to bolster the GCC’s missile defense capabilities. The Gulf States have assiduously worked – with US backing –  to augment their missile defense capabilities since the early 1990s. However, all of the efforts to convince the the GCC to cooperate closely on defense issues have failed.

The development of a regional missile defense system, therefore, is sure to run into problems. Nevertheless, the Gulf States have shown a sustained interest in further developing their anti-missile capabilities. And, as Rose indicated, the US continues to hammer away at the idea of using missile defenses to try and unify the GCC states – good luck.

The Kingdom, for example, first purchased 761 PAC-2 GEMS from the United States in 1992. And in 1993, the Saudis doubled down and ordered another 629 PAC-2s (The systems have since been upgraded). Moreover, in November 2012, Qatar requested “11 Patriot Configuration-3 modernized fire units, 11 AN/MPQ-65 radar sets, 11 AN/MSQ-132 engagement control systems, 30 antenna mast groups, 44 M902 launching stations, and 246 Patriot MIM-104E guidance-enhanced missile-TBM (GEM-T) with canisters.”

Qatar’s request moved in tandem with that of Kuwait’s. In July 2012, the Kuwaitis requested “60 PAC-3 missiles, 4 Patriot radars, 4 engagement control stations, 20 launching stations, 2 information coordination centrals and 10 electric power plants.” The missile defense systems are likely to complement the AN/FPS-132 Block 5 Early Warning Radar, which was deployed in Qatar in 2013, and will cover Iran, as well as provide the U.S. – and Doha – with increased space surveillance capabilities. The tiny Gulf Emirate has also purchased two AN/TPY-2 radars, as part of THAAD batteries. The UAE has also purchased the TPY-2 for its planned THAAD system.

Now, Jeffrey has written about what he calls the Saudi’s strategic dyad. While the long-range ballistic missiles get most of the attention, I think the more important issue vis-a-vis the Kingdom’s missile plans is its interest in precision strike. And, to be frank, I think the Saudis have fallen behind the Emiratis in this regard. The UAE, in my opinion, is a much better model for the future of Gulf defense. (Let the jokes start now about the Saudi Air Force.)

The UAE is working to pair missile defenses with a professional air force that is equipped with precision strike weapons. Thus, like the Saudis, the Emiratis purchased the Storm Shadow cruise missile. In tandem, the Emiratis are investing in drones and satellite reconnaissance.  (To be fair, the Saudis are also interested in drones.) The evidence suggests that the UAE is keen on developing the capability to launch precision strikes against regional targets. And, once the first shot is fired, the UAE appears intent on pairing its offensive capabilities with missile defense.

So, while the Saudis may have the capability to use ballistic missiles, I think the more interesting trend is the growing capability by regional states to use precision strike to hit command and control centers, Iranian mobile ballistic missile launchers, and leadership bunkers. And, should the two sides start shooting at each other, the complete saturation of the region with ballistic missile defenses could help to degrade Iran’s retaliatory capabilities. In other words, the UAE – and to a lesser extent, the other GCC states – are working to pair offensive and defensive missiles.

The Iranians completely understand this new dynamic. In every meeting or conference I have attended with Iranians in recent years, their main complaint is that the United States is unnecessarily militarizing the region. They argue that massive arms sales to the GCC states erodes regional trust and increases tension. (Obviously they leave out the part about the nuclear weapons program.) However, they also note that the best way for them to respond is to increase the capabilities of their ballistic missiles. Absent the capability of its geriatric air force to penetrate Gulfee airspace, Iran has little choice but to increase its reliance on asymmetric tactics. Thus, I suspect that Iran believes that it can simply saturate the GCC’s missile defenses with waves of ballistic missiles. (This is why Iran will never agree to put its missiles on the table during the current P5+1 talks.)

And when Iran does this, the GCC states decide to purchase more missile defenses. Washington appears to have decided that missile defense can be used to reassure the Gulf states about the US commitment to honor their bilateral security obligations, while also helping to protect oil and military facilities in the region. In turn, this suggests a continued build up of offensive and defensive missile systems in the region, as well as a continued US role moving forward. Yet in doing so, Iran will be forced to bolster its ballistic missile capabilities to overcome increased GCC capabilities.

The current dynamics, therefore, suggest that the region is mired in a conventional missile race. Thus, the recent Saudi decision to show off its small missile arsenal may simply be the beginning of what I suspect will be a future filled with many more missile displays in military parades.



  1. nukeman (History)

    This is only the beginning of an arms race in the Middle East and the surrounding areas. The US has pushed away our former allies in the region and one by one they are looking elsewhere for security guarantees. This will only get worse not better as time goes on. The biggest loss for the US is Egypt and people should read what the Arabic papers are really say about this administration. The English newspapers say what the administration wants them to say and they are bought and paid for.

  2. hippo1 (History)

    I have always been fascinated the fixation of anaylsts on ballistic missiles, ussualy to the detriment of broader and deeper trends. Countries genrally seek non-nuclear ballistic missiles when they are incapable of fielding and/or maintaining a competent air force. The story in the Gulf region is that the GCC as long out spent Iran on modern weapons systems and has long been able to stike at will at Iran’s vulnerable coastal oil infrastucutre. In response all Iran can do is lob a few highly innacurate SCUD variants and hope the hit something important. Iran’s missile program is a symptom of military weakness, particularly in terms of ar power, not strength. There are likley to be many motivations benind the GCC’s two decade long weapons buying spree, but military weakness is not an important one. Iran’s true threat to Saudi Arabia is that they provide an example to the Kingdom’s oppressed Shia population that Shia’s can govern themselves and thus spark a rebellion in the oil rich eastern province.

    • FlamesInTheDesert (History)

      Actually most of the gulf states military and vital civilian infrastructure are within range of irans short range missiles like the fateh 110 which has excellent accuracy and which iran has literally hundreds of and thats without taking irans long range arsenal into account,why else do you think the arabs and israelis are spending billions on missile defence if all they had to worry about was a few tens of poorly modified scuds a la saddam.The iranians made a conscious choice to go for missiles over airpower,it had nothing to do with military weakness,indeed iran passed up the chance to acquire more aircraft preferring to put those resources into its missile forces,tho that doesnt mean that they havent put considerable effort into maintaining and improving their existing airforce and its capabilities,anyone who thinks that the iranian airforce is “geriatric” is ill informed to say the least

    • P (History)

      I always thought the Iranians had a hard time keeping their 10970s and 1980s aircraft in service let alone upgrade them to anything that comes close to the technology level of the air forces of neighbouring countries. In particular as Iran is under a UN arms embargo that prohibits anyone from helping them with anything related to combat aircraft and most other weapons. It would be interesting to convincing evidence for the claim that Iran against the odds has succeeded in staying young and modern.

  3. j_kies (History)

    Nice antiques; can we convince the Saudis to host the SRBM/MRBM equivalent to the Jay Leno classic car selection?

    Given the open transit to all Muslims in the Haj; I have to believe that the Iranians have a good understanding of the skills / expertise of the Saudis from personal contact. Such understanding might be expected to decrease how threatening the DF missiles seem in an absolute sense. Finally given the inherent hazards and training requirements – how do you spell Big F—xxx Red Cloud in Arabic?

  4. nukeman (History)

    Iranian capabilities are very formable and they have actually published many relevant articles on their missiles, silos, etc. Many years ago the Saudis openly published articles and reports on the effect of nuclear weapons against space assets, ground targets and more. Their have also been some excellent documents on Middle Eastern countries written by a US Marine Corps professor. The open scientific and engineering articles published by countries in this region need to be carefully read and then more accurate writing can be done. You can read more of my thinking about this in a Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists article that was written about me.

  5. SMST (History)

    Stein: could you elaborate why you think Saudi Air Force is a joke? And how did you come to the conclusion that the Saudis are not investing enough in drones and satellite reconnaissance?

    • stein (History)

      I don’t think the KSA air force is a joke. However, there are numerous jokes in the region about the KSA’s air force. I was simply referring to that. Perhaps I was not clear enough in that regard. As for the satellite investment, I was referring to the UAE’s recent purchase of two earth observation satellites and its ownership stake in Italy’s Piaggio Aero.

  6. P (History)

    The interesting thing about the Saudi military parade is that while the DF-3 was shown for the first time they did not show some of the other, arguably more impressive, strategic military gadgets in their inventory. Such as Storm Shadow cruise missiles, upgraded E-3 and Erieye AEW+C and RE-3 SIGINT aircraft, pave way bomb, patriot PAC-3 (assuming that they already have been delivered) etc. Saudi still lacks long endurance UAVs or satellites, but has decades of experience with the E-3 fleet.