Questioning the length of a piece of string is one way to consider the existential threats to nations. For Douglas Barrie, this old retort illustrates how proximity affects perspective. It highlights the gap between his view and that of the Gulf States when considering Iran’s bulked-up missile capabilities.

The senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) does not recognise major danger – just yet. However, the increased spending on anti-ballistic missile defence in the region reveals the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) heightened concern.

The Military Balance, the flagship publication of the IISS, calculates that billions of dollars have been spent by the GCC states – comprising Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait – on missile defence. Saudi Arabia alone spent $2 billion last year on Patriot PAK IIIs, which are used to shoot down attack missiles. In addition to the Patriot, the UAE has the THAAD defence system, and Qatar and Kuwait either already have the PAK III, or will soon upgrade from the previous generation.

“In terms of interceptors and the radars to support them, there is quite a lot of capability already in the inventories of the GCC,” Barrie says. “On top of that,you have whatthe US brings to the theatre. Obviously, the US will be plugged into this in some fashion or other.”

Donald Trump’s victory throws US foreign policy into doubt. During his campaign, the president-elect delivered strong words about a non-interventionist foreign policy and forcing allies in faraway places to pay for US protection. These statements pose more questions about the region’s stability, and the speed at which the GCC is able to bolster its defence.

Common interests

The GCC’s existing defence capacity suggests the best response to the perceived threat is not acquiring a new range of interceptor and missile systems, but rather integrating the sensors and weapons already in its possession to make the best use of them. “It’s about sharing track data,” Barrie says, “sharing a recognised air picture, sharing surveillance – and sharing all of that in real time.”

Intergovernmental cooperation is always difficult. “There are going to be significant hurdles,” Barrie says. “People love to talk about them, and they’re not all going to be solved in a day, or even a year, but they just have to be worked at.”

The GCC was founded in 1981, two years after the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The war between Iran and Iraq in 1980 was another motivating force: better to stand together in an increasingly volatile region. Three years after the council’s formation, the Peninsula Shield was founded with troops based in Saudi Arabia on the borders of Kuwait and Iraq.

Historical ties, common security concerns and shared financial interests don’t make jumping the hurdles in unison any easier. The six nations’ combined GDP is about $1 trillion – a fifth the size of China’s – but still the debated single currency within the common market has not materialised after the UAE resisted the monetary council sitting in Riyadh instead of Abu Dhabi.

Money issues aside, the question of historical and ideological alliances also cast doubt over the solidarity of the council. The GCC states have seldom been in agreement over which outside country to back, often supporting opposing sides. The Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic State (IS) are two organisations that continue to test the cohesion of the GCC’s ideological and practical allegiances.

In mid-2015, Reuters reported Riad Kahwaji, CEO of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA), as saying: “Some GCC states, like Oman, do not want to have an integrated missile defence because they believe it will antagonise Iran, and they do not want to do this.”

Individually and collectively, the GCC states are focused on countering the direct threat of armed confrontation with Iran, Barrie says, and indirectly, with Iran sponsoring non-state actors in Syria and Yemen, where the GCC states support the opposition.

Elevated threat

In many ways, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the nuclear agreement between Iran and the UK, the US, China, Russia, France and Germany reached last year, has stirred the fears of Iranian aggression in the Gulf. The lifted sanctions mean that Iran regains access to more than $100 billion in frozen assets, and will be able to resume selling oil on international markets, increasing its exports by £6.9 billion by next year, according to the BBC.

“What this potentially means for Iran,” Barrie says, “is its ability to recapitalise its equipment inventory.” The republic still relies on shah-era and Soviet armaments.

“With the arms embargoes coming off in 2020,” Barrie says, “and the complete embargoes coming off in 2023, this provides Iran with the opportunity to go back into the global arms market to acquire key systems to replace some of its ageing inventory.”

This has two effects: Iran will keep its emphasis on a ballistic missile arsenal and also begin to build a more capable cruise missile capability as a complementary attack. With the right funding, Barrie says, Iran is likely to update its combat aircraft fleet from the existing F14s, F4s, MiG-29s and Su-24s. Barrie cites China and Russia as two prime candidate countries to offer replacements.

“One of the main concerns is Iran’s asymmetric capability, which is in no small part based on its ballistic missile arsenal, and what will increasingly be a credible cruise missile arsenal,” he says.

Add to this a well-equipped and modernised conventional arms inventory and, in the next one or two decades, Iran is likely to upgrade its obsolescent systems with far more capable and modern technology – posing a further safety challenge to the GCC.

The nuclear deal already seems to have renewed Iran’s vigour in developing its ballistic capabilities with multiple tests of missiles with precision accuracy ranges of just over 1,200 miles being carried out since agreeing to the JCPOA.

Some commentators have suggested the missile programme was a chance for Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei “to restore his respect, which he lost with the nuclear agreement”.

Making it less necessary to deduce the intention behind the actions, Mohsen Rezaee, the secretary of Iran’s Expediency Discernment Council, said “we will not submit to disarmament”, while the Iranian defence minister, Hosain Dahqan, said: “Iran doesn’t need a licence from anybody to develop its military capabilities.”

The geographical nature of the region makes ballistic and cruise missiles the biggest threat in the Iranian arsenal.

“This means a very short time of engagement from first detection to interceptor launch and deciding whether or not the intercept has been successful,” Barrie says.

Shared resources

It’s this need for quick response and the costly limitations of a national defence system that Barrie cites as good reason for an integrated anti-ballistic missile defence.

“The systems you will buy – air defence command and control; surveillance radars; and short, medium and long-range interceptors – represent a very significant investment,” he says.

It’s better to pool resources by integrating key elements of defence systems to work at a regional level.

A netted system, which uses the sensor and missile systems of all member states, will be better equipped to deal with single and multiple launches and a number of parallel attacks.

In terms of interceptors and the radars to support them there is quite a lot of capability already in the inventories of the GCC. On top of that, you have what the US brings to the theatre.

“You may have the opportunity to fire a second missile,” Barrie says. “Whereas on a national-only basis, your time of warning may be such that you only really have one window of opportunity for a shot. At that point, you fire two interceptors to increase your kill probability. Obviously, that’s an expensive way of doing it and you burn through your interceptors more quickly.”

Some GCC states, like Oman, do not want to have an integrated missile defence because they believe it will antagonise Iran, and they do not want to do this.

Barrie says it’s wise to think of the “netted system” as a shared, recognised air and space picture. “If I am sitting somewhere in the UAE,” he says, “looking at a recognised air and space picture of the region, then I am seeing the same thing as someone in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or Oman.”

Being able to integrate this system requires member states to share radar sensor data and other information, but that is not how the GCC currently operates.

How does this integrated defence move from the council’s agenda talking points to reality? “There has to be the political will collectively,” Barrie says, “otherwise it won’t really happen. There has to be the political recognition that the current architecture has its limitations. Operating on a national basis only means a less capable system than in a netted GCC environment where data is shared.”

The many obstacles strewn across the path to united defence doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be pursued. “It’s a kind of crawl-walk-run situation,” Barrie says. “There has been some progress, but it’s limited. The most capable air and missile defence environment is an integrated approach.”

The GCC has come far since its beginnings 35 years ago. The member states have offered economic and cultural support to one another. With Egypt, Jordan and Morocco poised to join the council, member states are showing their will to make the GCC more than just a regional power. If it is to protect its interests, the council has to defend itself. Whether Trump’s presidency kicks a leg from under the rickety table of Middle Eastern affairs remains to be seen. Regardless, it seems the only way to stand strong is to unite its defence capabilities.