Biden wants a Middle East air defense ‘alliance.’ But it’s a long way off.

Last updated on July 12, 2022

JERUSALEM — The Biden administration is urging Arab nations to team up with Israel to counter Iranian missiles, but continued mistrust and technological differences mean any kind of alliance could be years away.

Officials and experts say a more realistic goal would be for Israel to share some intelligence with Arab states, conduct tabletop exercises together and perhaps even purchase additional compatible weaponry. That’s more attainable than a regional defense shield linking shooters with radars, satellites and other sensors, they say.

“It’s hard enough to get the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy sensors and effectors into a common command-and-control system,” said Tom Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s even more challenging when you have them coming from multiple countries in multiple languages.”

Still, Biden is expected to discuss the effort when he meets with officials in Israel and Saudi Arabia this week. The U.S. is in talks with nations in the region about “a truly more cooperative air defense” in the face of the growing threat from Iran, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters last week ahead of Biden’s trip.

“There is a growing convergence among nations in the region of concern about [Iran’s] advancing ballistic missile program and their support to terror networks,” Kirby said. Officials are “exploring the idea of being able to kind of integrate all those air defenses together, so that there truly is a more effective coverage to deal with the growing Iranian threat,” he added.

The prospect of Israel and Arab nations working together on air defense is more plausible now than when Vice President Biden visited Israel in 2016. Back then, Jerusalem had ties with only Egypt and Jordan. But Tehran’s increasingly aggressive actions in the region, coupled with several deals brokered by the Trump administration, have drastically changed the diplomatic landscape.

The Abraham Accords normalized relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco — all big buyers of U.S. weapons systems — as well as Sudan.

In recent years, Tehran and its proxies have carried out dozens of missile and drone attacks on military bases and critical infrastructure in the region, such as the 2019 strikes on oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais in Saudi Arabia. In March, Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthis claimed responsibility for a drone attack on Saudi energy facilities.

“The Iranians have pushed them together,” said Karako, referring to increased cooperation between Israel and Arab nations to counter threats from Tehran. “And the difference now is there is some water under the bridge with the Abraham Accords.”

Easing another potential logistical hurdle, U.S. Central Command officially assumed responsibility for Israel last September. Israel had been U.S. European Command’s responsibility.

For their part, Israeli officials have said cooperation on air defense to counter Iranian attacks is already underway, with help from the Pentagon.

“Over the past year I have been leading an extensive program, together with my partners at the Pentagon and in the U.S. administration, that will strengthen the cooperation between Israel and countries in the region,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz said last month. “This program is already operative and has already enabled the successful interception of Iranian attempts to attack Israel and other countries.”

Gulf nations have not yet acknowledged the plan. But a senior Israeli official said the goal of the so-called Middle East Air Defense Initiative is to “build some kind of architecture that integrates regional actors.”

Whether or not you want to use the word ‘alliance,’ it’s your business but that’s the idea,” the person said on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about a sensitive issue, adding that “there is still a long way to go.”

The concept is not new: U.S. officials attempted to integrate Gulf air defenses at the end of the George W. Bush administration. But even without Israel complicating the picture, the effort failed due to mistrust between the different Arab nations, which are reluctant to share intelligence, experts said.

“I certainly think it’s more plausible and more realistic than it was 15 years ago, but I still think that you still have this roadblock of intelligence sharing,” said Mark Kimmitt, a former top Pentagon official in the Bush administration and deputy director of operations and chief military spokesperson in Iraq. “We had the same challenges 15 years ago … when you throw Israel into the mix you have other challenges.”

One of the largest hurdles is the reluctance of countries in the region to share intelligence, experts said. Nations might be more willing to contribute threat information to a “digital backbone” provided by the U.S., but it’s unlikely they would provide real-time threat data, said David Des Roches, an associate professor at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.

“Would Israelis want to share what defense systems it has around the Damona nuclear site?” Des Roches said. “Nobody wants to show a vulnerability.”

The fact that Israel is willing to participate in an agreement like this is a positive step, he said, but “we’re nowhere near the NATO model where a multinational HQ prioritizes the threat.”

U.S. leadership is necessary for the effort to move forward, even on a limited basis, experts said.

“The region is not ready today to self-generate an integrated air and missile defense system. But the conditions exist toward making it a reality with U.S. coordination and leadership,” said R. Clarke Cooper, former assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs and now an expert at the Atlantic Council. “The U.S. has to work with the [Gulf Cooperation Council] and with each state in the Middle East to overcome information-sharing and trust issues.”

Aside from the diplomatic challenges, there are geographic and technical hurdles to overcome. Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates all have sophisticated air defenses: Israel operates the native Iron Dome and David’s Sling missiles, among others, while the Arab nations have bought U.S.-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system. In recent years, the U.S. has also deployed Patriot missile systems across Saudi Arabia.

More sensors placed in strategic locations, for instance in Qatar, are needed for more effective coverage, Karako said.

“You just need lots and lots of distributed sensors,” he noted. “There’s not enough radars in Israel to completely wallpaper the region.”

But one problem is that Saudi and the UAE also operate Chinese and Russian systems, which can’t integrate with Western equipment.

Another issue is that while Patriot and THAAD are effective against ballistic missiles, they are less potent in countering cruise missiles and drones, which are designed to hug the terrain and evade air defenses. The sensors need to be able to see “360 degrees” to detect and identify such weapons, Karako said.

“The challenge is you can have something that’s low down 360, but range will be limited by the curvature of the Earth,” he noted.

The idea of a loose missile-defense alliance alone reflects a shift toward normalization between former adversaries coalescing around a more hawkish stance toward Iran, said Caroline Rose, an analyst at the New Lines Institute.

The problem is “it’s going to take quite some time to achieve a fully-integrated air defense system between countries, in both the Gulf and the region at large.”

“Issues that stymied efforts to establish a system, such as lack of trust over information-sharing and system communications, still exist, particularly as new countries — many having served as former adversaries — enter the coalition’s fold,” she said.

Alexander Ward reported from Jerusalem.