Pentagon looks to increase air defense systems in Gulf as Iran threats increase

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Pentagon officials kicked off meetings in Riyadh with GCC counterparts on Wednesday to discuss what a senior US defense official said was one of the region’s “most challenging periods” in recent years, including persistent threats from Iran and its proxies.

“As we all know, the region is experiencing one of the most challenging periods in recent years. Threats from Iran and its proxies are pervasive, demonstrated by an unprecedented number of Iran-backed attacks since October,” the senior defense official said ahead of the meetings, which Al Arabiya English first reported on last week.

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The main goals of the meetings will be to look at ways to strengthen cooperation on integrated air and missile defense, including increased early missile warning data sharing, the official said. “These conversations are really more important than ever.”

Dan Shapiro, the top Pentagon official for the Middle East, is leading the US delegation.

“The desire and commitment and the impetus to invest even further in those efforts and those technologies is really quite profound among all of our GCC and other regional partners,” the senior defense official said in response to a question from Al Arabiya English.

A separate working group will also focus on maritime security. That group will focus “heavily on Houthi terrorist attacks against international shipping,” the official told reporters on a phone call.

Yemen’s Houthis have launched over 90 attacks against international shipping in the Red Sea since the outbreak of the Gaza war. The US led a global coalition to work on deterring the group from attacks, but the Houthis continue to target merchant, commercial and military ships on a near-daily basis.

At least three US MQ-9 Reaper drones have also been shot down by the Houthis, with each drone estimated to be worth around $30 million.

Coordinated airstrikes between the US and the UK have also failed to deter the Houthis, but US officials say they have significantly degraded Houthi capabilities. US officials have acknowledged, however, that they did not have enough intelligence on how much ability the Iran-backed group had before the start of the campaign making it difficult to gauge how successful Western-led strikes have been.

“These attacks are not just a US problem; they impact the entirety of the region, and they have global ramifications, so we look forward to discussing how we can expand cooperation with our Gulf partners to mitigate the Houthi threat to maritime security,” the senior US defense official said.

The official expressed concern about the ability of the Houthis to attack as far as the Mediterranean Sea although no such attacks have been seen yet.

The Houthis have mainly targeted ships in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and some in the Indian Ocean. In recent weeks, they have threatened to hit vessels anywhere in the region that have any links to Israel.

Iran threats

For years, the US has been trying to increase the coordination of air and missile defense systems across the Middle East. This work has faced some difficulties, particularly following Israel’s move into the US Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility. It was previously placed in the European command.

Nevertheless, the integrated air and missile defense working group takes on new importance in light of the first-ever Iranian attack on Israel, which saw hundreds of missiles and drones over the skies of Israel on April 13. “This attack really was a watershed moment in the Middle East,” the senior defense official said, adding that this showcased the importance of IAMD.

“Iran’s attack gave the world the opportunity to see what a partnership with the United States can be and really showcased what we’re collectively capable of when we work together on defeating regional security threats,” the official said.

The IAMD working group in Riyadh will assess the current air threats that threaten regional security and multilateral efforts to counter those threats will be discussed. This includes expanding the air and missile defense early warning systems, sharing of information and other ways to erode the effectiveness of Iran’s missile and drone capabilities.

“Our basic message as we head into these discussions is we’re stronger when we act together,” the senior defense official said.

Dana Stroul, who Shapiro replaced in January, recently wrote that the US and GCC militaries should release a joint statement of continued commitment to multilateral security. She added that Washington should make clear to its Gulf partners that they could expect the same level of defensive support as was provided to Israel if Iran attacked any of these countries directly.

US partners and allies in the region are getting new technologies and systems. And as those acquisitions are made, there are opportunities to integrate them further into the network of technologies that plug into the air and missile defense capabilities.

The former head of US military forces in the Middle East, Joseph Votel, said the meetings would provide an excellent opportunity to review the Iran attacks and how the US, Israel and other partners worked together to take down most of the missiles and drones. Votel told Al Arabiya English that this would be a chance to consider how April 13 attacks “may be parlayed into a more effective regional approach.”

A joint statement after the meeting said the attendees concurred on urgent and shared assessments of air threats in the region, including missiles and drones that threaten the regional stability of the GCC.

The IAMD working group discussed efforts to counter shared threats in light of “unprecedented destabilizing activities by malign actors in the Middle East.”

No mention was made of Iran or the proxies it backs throughout the region except for the Houthis in the maritime security working group. The US and GCC officials agreed to a GCC Early Warning Study to take place later this summer.

The maritime security working groups discussed the malign activities of the Houthi militias on maritime security, emphasizing the importance of international efforts that support maritime security in the region to maintain the flow of trade and energy to the world. They also committed to reviewing the current duties of the Combined Maritime Force (CMF) to include counter-smuggling and strengthening intel cooperation for all participating states.

Read more: Iran spy ship provided intel on vessels transiting through Red Sea, US admiral says

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