Now is the Time to Integrate Mideast Air Defenses

In September 2019, a swarm of Iranian drones and cruise missiles temporarily took half of Saudi oil production offline. Four months later, a barrage of missiles obliterated a base in Iraq, wounding more than 100 U.S. troops.

In early 2022, a missile and drone attack on the United Arab Emirates by Iran-backed rebels in Yemen killed three civilians. Collectively, the attacks highlighted an unsettling reality: the U.S. and its partners are one successful Iranian strike away from catastrophe, resulting in mass casualties, destruction of infrastructure vital to the global economy or both.

In the face of Iran’s growing threat, America’s Middle East friends urgently need to improve their defenses. As explained in a new task force report we authored for the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, that means getting U.S. partners to integrate their air defense systems into a broader regionwide network. Working together, each country’s ability to defeat Iranian attacks would be enhanced over what they can achieve acting alone.

While the logic of integrated air and missile defenses (IAMD) is compelling, achieving it has historically proven difficult. The region’s political rivalries have repeatedly foiled efforts at multinational cooperation —especially in an area like IAMD that puts a premium on sharing sensitive data.

Importantly, that may be changing. Mounting attacks have concentrated the minds of the region’s states as never before on the severity of the challenge not only from Iran, but from its proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and Syria. Their offensive strike power is now a 360-degree threat no single nation can effectively address alone.

Also driving the opportunity for IAMD is Israel’s expanding security relations with its neighbors — thanks to the Abraham Accords, but even more importantly to Israel’s move to U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility. CENTCOM’s convening power provides a venue for Israel’s military to interact regularly with America’s Arab partners. Possessing the most advanced multilayered defenses in the world, Israel’s addition to U.S. IAMD efforts could be a game changer for Arab countries seeking solutions.

CENTCOM has already taken advantage of the opening. Unprecedented progress has been made over the past two years in assembling an informal coalition, including Israel and six Arab states. This group convenes regular meetings not only of chiefs of defense, but at multiple lower levels of command as well, to discuss IAMD.

Members of the coalition are already sharing aerial threat information with CENTCOM’s Combined Air Operations Center in Qatar that passes it to neighbors at risk. Despite using antiquated communications like telephone calls, this rudimentary cooperation on a regionwide early warning system represents a genuine breakthrough after years of stillborn efforts to advance cooperation.

While useful against slow-moving drones, a voluntary system of information sharing based on analog technologies is insufficient to meet the full scope of the Iranian challenge. True integration will require a willingness to share threats at the speed of modern warfare. The critical first step should be digitally connecting each state’s air defense sensors and radars to the operations center, where multiple data streams can be fused into a common operating picture of the region’s airspace.

By gaining access to sensors deployed on the territory of their neighbors, a common operating picture will significantly enhance the air domain awareness of each member, allowing it to close gaps in its own radar coverage and to track a larger number of threats — earlier, more accurately and at greater distance from its own territory.

With appropriate investments, the technical challenge of digitally connecting sensors to the operations center using encrypted data-sharing links is resolvable. The larger impediment remains political. Countries fear sharing data will expose sensitive information about capabilities and vulnerabilities that neighbors could leak or abuse.

CENTCOM’s role in allaying these concerns is pivotal. Every U.S. partner trusts CENTCOM more than its neighbors. With the operations center at the center of a hub-and-spoke system, CENTCOM should conduct constant simulations and training to demonstrate both the utility and its ability to secure each member’s data.

But CENTCOM’s commitment alone isn’t sufficient. U.S. partners will also need to be convinced President Joe Biden is fully invested in the project. In a post-Afghanistan era, the message that America is leaving the Middle East has metastasized.

Some suspect Washington’s interest in integration is a ruse to facilitate further withdrawal. Overcoming those doubts will require a sustained campaign to make clear a U.S.-led effort on IAMD is designed to consolidate — not abandon — America’s enduring commitment to the region.

For 20 years, U.S. administrations have failed to advance Middle East IAMD. New dynamics have created the best opportunity in a generation for progress. But realizing it likely depends on Biden’s readiness to move the issue higher on his already-crowded list of national security priorities.

Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Joseph Guastella served as the U.S. Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for operations and as commander of U.S. Air Forces Central. Retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. David Mann served as commander of Army Space and Missile Defense Command. John Hannah, the Randi and Charles Wax Senior fellow with the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, served as national security adviser to former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Originally published in Defense News.

This op-ed was made possible by the generous support of the Gettler Family Foundation and a portion of the research was conducted on the Benjamin Gettler International Policy Trip.