Biden wants an air defense “alliance” in the Middle East. But it’s far.

Still, Biden is expected to discuss the effort when he meets with officials in Israel and Saudi Arabia this week. The United States is in talks with countries in the region on “truly more cooperative air defense” in the face of the growing threat from Iran, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters. last week before Biden’s trip.

“There is a growing convergence between nations in the region who are concerned about [Iran’s] advance the ballistic missile program and their support for terrorist networks,” Kirby said. Officials are “exploring the idea of ​​being able to somehow integrate all of these air defenses together, so that there is really more effective cover to deal with the growing Iranian threat,” he added.

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

The Abraham Accords normalized relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco – all major buyers of US 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 in Abqaiq and Khurais in Arabia. saudi. In March, Yemen’s Houthis, backed by Iran, claimed responsibility for a drone attack on Saudi energy facilities.

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

Easing another potential logistical hurdle, US Central Command officially assumed responsibility for Israel last September. Israel was under the responsibility of the United States European Command.

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

“Over the past year, I have led an extensive program, together with my partners in the Pentagon and the US administration, that will enhance cooperation between Israel and countries in the region,” the minister said last month. of Defense Benny Gantz. “This program is already operational and has already enabled the successful interception of Iranian attempts to attack Israel and other countries.”

The Gulf countries have not yet recognized the plan. But a senior Israeli official said the aim of the so-called Middle East Air Defense Initiative is to “build a kind of architecture that integrates regional players”.

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

The concept is not new: American officials attempted to integrate air defenses in the Gulf at the end of the George W. Bush administration. But even without Israel complicating the picture, the effort failed due to mistrust between 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 you still have that intelligence-sharing hurdle,” said Mark Kimmitt, a former senior Pentagon official in the Bush administration and deputy director of operations. and main 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 biggest obstacles is the reluctance of countries in the region to share intelligence, experts said. Nations may be more willing to provide threat information to a “digital backbone” provided by the United States, but they are unlikely to provide real-time threat data, says David Des Roches , associate professor at the National Defense University in Washington, DC.

“Would the Israelis want to share the defense systems they have around the Damona nuclear site? said Des Roches. “Nobody wants to show vulnerability.”

Israel’s willingness to participate in a deal like this is a positive step, he said, but “we are a long way from the NATO model where a multinational HQ prioritizes threat.” .

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

“The region is not ready today to generate an integrated air and anti-missile defense system on its own. But the conditions exist to make it a reality with American coordination and leadership,” said R. Clarke Cooper, former Assistant Secretary of State for Politico-Military Affairs and now Atlantic Council expert. “The United States must work with the [Gulf Cooperation Council] and with every state in the Middle East to overcome issues of information sharing and trust.

Besides the diplomatic challenges, there are geographical and technical obstacles to overcome. Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates all have sophisticated air defences: Israel operates, among other things, the native Iron Dome and David’s Sling missiles, while Arab countries have purchased a high-altitude area defense system manufactured in the USA. In recent years, the United States has also deployed Patriot missile systems throughout Saudi Arabia.

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

“You just need lots and lots of distributed sensors,” he noted. “There are not enough radars in Israel to completely cover the area.”

But one problem is that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also operate Chinese and Russian systems, which cannot integrate with Western equipment.

Another problem is that while Patriot and THAAD are effective against ballistic missiles, they are less powerful against cruise missiles and drones, which are designed to hug terrain and evade air defenses. Sensors must be able to see “360 degrees” to detect and identify such weapons, Karako said.

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

The idea of ​​a loose missile defense alliance alone reflects a move toward normalization between former adversaries coalesced around a more hawkish stance toward Iran, said New Lines Institute analyst Caroline Rose.

The problem is that “it will take some time to achieve a fully integrated air defense system between countries, both in the Gulf and in the region as a whole”.

“The problems that have hampered efforts to establish a system, such as lack of trust in the system’s information sharing and communications, still exist, particularly as new countries – many of which have been former adversaries – come under the umbrella of the coalition,” she said.

Alexander Ward reported from Jerusalem.

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