Regional rivals in search of a bigger bang

Published in Gulf States News, 18 February 2016

The prospect of Iran re-equipping and modernising its armed forces in the years ahead seems likely to prompt GCC states to keep buying advanced weaponry, with a focus on missile defence

Government budgets may be under heavy pressure as a result of the sharp fall in oil revenues, but one area that still seems well protected is defence. An analysis of military spending patterns by the London-based think-tank the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), released in early February, shows expenditure on the region’s armed forces is still growing, albeit at a slower rate than in the recent past.

Data published in The Military Balance 2016 show that Saudi Arabia’s military budget last year was $81.9bn, the world’s third largest behind the United States and China, up from $80.8bn a year before. The Bahraini and Omani military budgets also increased. Of the countries where data is available for 2015, only Kuwait seems to have curtailed its spending in dollar terms – and even here military spending rose as a percentage of GDP.

Spending demands are rising to pay for operations in Yemen and Syria. But there are other considerations at play too, centred on Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC)-Iran rivalry. That much is evident from the amount being invested in defensive and offensive missile systems. “Some Arab states have spent substantial sums on defence equipment in recent years, including on missile defence,” IISS director general John Chipman said at the Military Balance’s 9 February launch: “Gulf procurements have largely been driven by concern over Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal.”

All the GCC states except Oman have Patriot surface-to-air systems, designed for use against aircraft, cruise missiles and short-range ballistic missiles. Terminal high-altitude air defence (Thaad) systems, used to target short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, are also starting to enter the region.

Among the most recent deals, the US State Department last July approved a Saudi request to buy 600 Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missiles at a cost of $5.4bn to modernise and replenish its existing stocks. Kuwait took delivery of seven Patriot PAC-3 missiles in 2015 at a cost of $263m and the UAE received two batteries of Thaad missiles, which it had ordered in 2011.

According to the IISS, “Saudi Arabia’s armed forces remain the best equipped of all states in the [Middle East and North Africa] region except Israel”. However, it is the UAE military “which is arguably the best trained and most capable in the GCC states”, active in everything from supporting an F-16 detachment in Afghanistan to committing the Presidential Guard and other forces who have “incurred significant casualties in Yemen.”

Saudi Arabia uses its Patriots to hit Scud missiles intermittently fired over the border by rebels in Yemen. On 8 February, a Saudi statement said Royal Saudi Air Defence Forces had intercepted a missile as it headed towards Asir. Coalition forces responded by targeting the launch platform inside Yemeni territory, the statement said.

Critical timing as sanctions unwind

It is fears over a resurgent Iran that will fuel future spending. While many economic sanctions have been lifted on Iran, restrictions on conventional weapons sales will remain for a further five years and on ballistic missiles for eight years. GCC leaders may view this time as a critical window in which to bolster their systems before Iran has a chance to re-arm properly.

In terms of offensive capability, Saudi Arabia has DF-21 medium-range ballistic missiles, which are capable of reaching most parts of Iran (with the exception of the far west). Riyadh also has Storm Shadow cruise missiles, while the UAE has a variant known as Black Shaheen.

Iran has both short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, which can strike at a range of up to 3,000km. Its Shahab-3 ballistic missiles are able to strike any part of the GCC. And despite the constraint of sanctions, Tehran has been making efforts to modernise its arsenal, for instance by moving away from liquid propellant to solid propellant which is easier to handle and means missiles can be fired more quickly.

“They’ve looked at a variety of range extension options [and] a variety of ways to increase accuracy,” IISS senior fellow for military aerospace Douglas Barrie said. “One of the biggest issues they still have is the majority of their weapons are pretty inaccurate. You’re talking 1,000 metres [accuracy] at a 500-750km range, which is really of very little military utility.”

Just how much money Iran will be able to commit to modernising its armed forces remains to be seen, and depends on factors including oil prices, the speed of economic recovery, and the cost of supporting allies such as Syrian President Bashir Al-Assad and Lebanese Hizbollah. Russia and China are the most obvious sources of any new weaponry the Islamic Republic does buy.

Given the enmity between Tehran and some GCC capitals, all this means there is a distinct possibility of a missile-led arms race in the years ahead. “If Iran rearms, Gulf states, aware that Iran will always have an edge in terms of force size, will likely look to procure yet more advanced weapons, for instance high-speed precision strike or cruise missiles,” Chipman concluded.