Last Wednesday, the Senate voted down legislation aimed at stopping the sale of advanced offensive weapons to the United Arab Emirates. Washington can and should do more. As Iran proliferates advanced long-range weaponry and its proxies launch short-range attacks, the incoming Biden administration should also emphasize strengthening the defenses of America’s partners in the Gulf.
The Trump administration reportedly promised the Emirates the F-35 aircraft as part of the historic Abraham Accords to normalize relations with the Israelis. In addition to supplying the UAE with fifty of America’s premier fighter jet, the $23 billion agreement includes 18 MQ-9B armed drones and air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions.
As President-elect Biden is likely to continue the Trump administration’s attention to great power competition with China, constructive arms sales could transform America’s role in the Middle East from being a security guarantor to a security contributor. If that transition is to succeed, Washington should examine how the Arab Gulf States fit into a regional approach to Middle East security as America pulls back.
Transferring only offensive weaponry does not address several of the unconventional threats America’s regional partners confront today. An advanced air force cannot eliminate threats from the cheap drones and rockets becoming increasingly common around the Middle East.
For example, the Saudi military has struggled against rocket and drone attacks from Yemen. In September 2019, the United States had to surge its own air defenses to Saudi Arabia when they proved incapable of defending against Iranian drone and cruise missile attacks on the critical oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais. Skyguard, MIM-104 Patriot, and French Shahine air defense systems guarded Abqaiq, but none are well-suited to shooting down the short-range and low-flying weaponry used in the attack.
While the UAE arms sales have garnered recent headlines, it appears that the State Department also recognizes the need to build defensive capabilities there as well. Last month, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper visited the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Israel to discuss security cooperation and defense trade. Building on these conversations, Secretary of State Pompeo hosted the first strategic dialogue with Bahrain on December 1st. The Biden administration should continue these important talks when it takes office.
Selling additional American Avenger Air Defense Systems—which Bahrain already has—and Sentinel Radar would enable America’s regional partners to respond faster and with greater precision against short-range rockets and cruise missiles from Iran. Likewise, the United States should provide additional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, such as early-warning radars and aircraft, patrol boats, and communication technology.
Meanwhile, Congress should expand funding for research and development on very short-range air defense systems and promote systems such as the U.S.-Israel Iron Dome for export. U.S. funding for the Iron Dome has been one of Washington’s most important contributions to regional stability. Israel now has the strategic patience to intercept incoming rockets with the Iron Dome, minimizing the need to launch dangerous ground operations.
American foreign policy would benefit from a more concerted, coordinated region-wide approach to arms transfers to build up the region’s defensive capabilities against Iranian aggression. Diplomatic outreach to promote interoperability—or the ability for military equipment to work together—between Gulf states and coordinating defensive weapons purchases among them would help fill the gaps between each country’s defenses and cement the foundation of regional cooperation.
Integrating ISR and missile defense systems requires the states to share sensitive data and resolve their political disputes. Overcoming these difficulties will require significant coordination by Washington, but the development of a regional missile defense network would severely undermine Iranian aggression.
Weapons sales require a delicate balancing act. A danger remains that if America does not provide high-end weapons or places too many conditions on them, the Gulf States will increasingly turn to Moscow and Beijing. Replying to criticism of the recent weapons package, UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba acknowledged that they “would rather have the best US-equipment or we will reluctantly find it from other sources, even if less capable.”
At the same time, Congress and the State and Defense departments should carefully enforce rules on end-use monitoring for all American-made weapons systems overseas. Israel, America’s most important partner in the Middle East, must abide by end-use controls, so it only makes sense that other U.S. partners do as well. Otaiba’s point about seeking alternatives is well taken, and his tacit acknowledgment of the superiority of American-made products also gives Washington room to ensure proper weapons use.
America’s Arab Gulf State partners are vital to stability in the Middle East. Helping them means building defense even more than offense.
Vice Admiral Michael J. Connor, USN (ret.) is former Commander, United States Submarine Forces and a JINSA 2018 Generals and Admirals Program participant. He is currently President and CEO of ThayerMahan, Inc.
Originally published in RealClearDefense