Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Michael Eisenstadt, Senior Fellow and Director, Military and Security Studies Program, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Bilal Y. Saab, Senior Fellow for Middle East Security, Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, Atlantic Council
So we’re here now for a conversation on defense of the Gulf. And to discuss this, we have really outstanding panelists.
We have Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgriff, who among his many distinguished assignments was the former commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet and of the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.
We have Michael Eisenstadt, who’s director of the Military and Security Studies Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He’s a longtime U.S. Army Reservist who – I think from looking at your bio, Mike, you have served in every significant U.S. military action in the Middle East for the past 25 years.
And Bilal Saab, who is a senior fellow here at the Scowcroft Center and was the founding director of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. So I think you’ll agree we could have no better qualified panel to discuss defense cooperation in the Arabian Gulf.
And I dare say we could hardly have picked a better day for it. President Obama has just made a major foreign policy speech at West Point. He’s also very recently visited Saudi Arabia. Secretary Hagel has been out to the Gulf meeting with defense ministers. So this issue is very much at the forefront of U.S. policymaking, Washington policy discussions.
And so, you know, there are some major issues here. We’ve been hearing a lot about the issue, the degree and nature of U.S. commitment to the security of the Gulf, of our allies in the Gulf. We’re going to discuss, I think, the extent to which the United States can persuade Gulf allies to overcome the kind of historic rivalries and suspicions they’re had in order to act more cohesively in their own defense, be it against a potential threat from Iran or elsewhere, and also whether the United States, Gulf allies and other allies could be working together more effectively to turn the tide in the horrific war in Syria.
So these are all very relevant issues. And I’m hoping that in our discussion, we can discuss the particularities of defense of the Gulf, missile defense of the Gulf, but also broaden it out to discuss U.S. policy and U.S.-Gulf relations and the dynamic among Arab states and how all of these play into the defense picture.
Each panelist is going to start with a few minutes of informal remarks and then we’re going to open the floor for a discussion.
Mike, let’s start with you. The overall theme here of the conference is defense and missile defense. Could you start us out with an overall sense of the defense of the Gulf, the role of missile defense in the Gulf vis-à-vis Iran and also, any lessons learned from Syria so far?
MICHAEL EISENSTADT: Sure. Sure. Thanks, Michele. And thanks to the Atlantic Council for organizing this event.
Just by way of introduction and putting things kind of in a broader context, I’ll just say as my first comment that I think much has been accomplished in the last decade or two in the areas of missile defense but a lot remains to be done.
As, by and large, the threat has kept pace with the response. If you look back about a decade ago, the only thing we had in the region was – in the way of missile defense was prepositioned equipment. And today, now, we have two plus battalions of Patriot PAC-2 and PAC-3s. We have the ability to deploy THAAD into the region. And we have – in the Persian Gulf, we have two to three Aegis-capable ships to provide a layered defense.
And, likewise, during the same period, the capabilities of our allies have increased dramatically as well, and they are operating with the same systems as us, Patriot PAC-2s and PAC-3s. UAE has also gotten THAAD. So our capabilities and their capabilities have grown.
But I’d also mention that Iran’s capabilities have grown during this period. And we’re dealing with perhaps the largest conventionally armed missile force in the world perhaps if we’re talking about missile force in the high hundreds, probably maybe as many as 800, including both short and medium range ballistic missiles. So this poses a challenge.
I think it’s a manageable challenge if we accomplish three things: first of all, we develop an attack capability that can attrite Iran’s missile capability before they are launched in order to cut down the threat to more manageable proportions; secondly, if we make every shot count, and that’s more a function of battle management; and then, finally, if we avoid duplication of effort with our coalition partners – and I know Admiral Cosgriff is going to be talking about this so I won’t go into it, but it’s very important to get these three elements right if we are to ensure that this remains a manageable problem.
I think it also needs to be mentioned that we’re also seeing a similar problem in the maritime arena emerging now with Iran’s development of ballistic missiles that are built to target our carrier strike groups, and in particular target the aircraft carriers. And they have a missile called the Khalij Fars, the Persian Gulf they call it, which apparently has an electro-optical seeker. Who knows how capable it really is. We don’t really have a good sense whether it really is an operational capability, but they are striving in this area.
And they are – I think you have to assume that given enough time and effort, they will develop at least a capability – at least on paper because targeting a carrier is not a trivial matter. It’s a maneuvering and moving objective and there’s all kinds of things you need to do in terms of developing reconnaissance capabilities in order to have the ability to target a carrier. But this is something now. We’ve traditionally focused on missile defense against land-based targets; now we have to also look in the maritime arena as well.
Secondly, I think I – the second point I want to say is that while the U.S. needs to do more to counter Iran’s rockets and missiles, I think our missile defense effort has to go beyond just rocket and missile defenses, beyond active defenses. I mentioned just a moment ago offensive options, attack options to attrite Iran’s missile and rocket capability. That’s part of it.
The other part is having the ability to hold at risk what the adversary values most. Missile defense is deterrence by denial. It enables deterrence by denial. But you also have to have the ability to deter by punishment. So our aerial strike capabilities in the region and those of our allies are an important part of deterrence and part of this package or capability you’re trying to create by building up missile defenses.
Secondly, we have to also pay greater attention to passive defense, which is civil defense. This is an area where Israel has done a lot. There’s reports – increasingly they’re moving things underground, hospital facilities; the Bank of Israel is moving some of its facilities underground to enable continuity in wartime.
In the Gulf, I don’t think this is an area where I think a lot of our allies need to do a lot more than they have been doing. And especially in a new political environment, in the wake of whether you want to call it the Arab spring or the Arab uprisings, the ability of a government to protect its civilian population in wartime is increasingly important and they can’t ignore this or they can only ignore this task at their peril. So this is one area where we have to do more to partner with our allies in this area.
And also, we have to consider that in some of these countries where 80, 90 percent of the population consists of third-country nationals from Europe, East Asia, South Asia, the United States, civilian losses could also have political consequences in wartime. So protecting the civilian population is increasingly important. And that’s part of building up the resilience of these societies and their ability to face the threat posed by missiles.
I think it’s also important to keep in mind that while strengthening missile defenses is vitally important, we also have to have the ability to neutralize the other elements of the adversaries’ deterrent in warfighting array. That’s, in the case of Iran, the ability to engage in terrorism, to disrupt shipping in the Persian Gulf and their cyber capabilities, because increasingly robust missile defenses might push them into these other areas to rely more on these other areas in their own deterrence and defense doctrine. So you have to have a comprehensive approach to deterrence. Missile defense is really kind of one of the key pillars, but you have to not lose sight that you have to also keep a pace in these other areas as well.
And then, finally, the last point I wanted to make here has to do with America’s credibility. We see a lot of our efforts in the missile defense arena as a foremost manifestation of America’s commitment to our allies and to the defense of the Gulf. But if there is a perception in the region that we won’t have the will to use these capabilities or we’ll only be willing to use perhaps our, you know, active defenses but not use the active component, you know, the strike – you know, the strike options that we would have in order to degrade Iranian offensive strike capabilities in the way of their military force, that might undermine the confidence of our allies in the security guarantees we’re providing and, you know, in the form of missile defenses.
So we have to pay attention. It’s not enough just to put hardware in the region and to say this is proof of our commitment. There has to be a political component. And this gets to where the administration is right now in terms of the lack of confidence in the United States in the Gulf, where, you know, again, forward positioning of capabilities is just not enough.
Two final points with regard to Syria. One of the things we have to consider is that in looking at the threat emanating from Iran, we have to focus no longer just in the Gulf but Iran as emerging as an actor in the Levant. If Bashar al-Assad remains in power, I think we have to consider the possibility, if not the likelihood, that he’ll be increasingly reliant on Iran and Hezbollah in kind of the post-civil war or, you know, if the civil war continues or whatever kind of arrangement going forward, Iran will play a great role. And it’s quite possible that Iran might try to use its position in Syria to use the Lebanese and Syrian coastline as a staging area for operations against the sea-based leg of the European Phased Adaptive Approach to missile defense, in other words, to use the Syrian coast as a staging area for operations against the Aegis ships in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Again, I throw this out. Just this is a very speculative thing, but it’s something we have to keep in mind. There’s a lot of civilian sea and air traffic in that part of the world, and they might try to use this traffic to – as a cover for using civilian boats, UAVs, kind of trade of asymmetric approaches to dealing with Aegis ships. Now, these are very capable ships. They’re very fast moving. Self-defense capability, but they might do things in order to neutralize their sensors using kamikaze drones and stuff like that that could, you know, hinder their ability to respond in a crisis. And that’s just something we have to keep in mind going forward in the future.
And the final point with regard to the Syrian crisis has to do with the deployment of Patriot missiles to defend Turkey. And this underscores, first of all, the need to keep in mind the possibility that we will have to deploy missile defense in an expeditionary fashion in the future again elsewhere. And it underscores the need for NATO to develop and exercise the ability to do so.
Now, it’s interesting to look back, if you look at the timelines, the request by Turkey was – I think for the Patriots was made in early November. NATO approved it in early December. The first battery came in line at the end of January and then the final battery came in line mid-February so about three, three and a half months kind of timeline to respond to the Turkish request. Can we do better? Is that good enough or could we do better? I think this is something going forward. We have to look at this experience and say, there’s a need for an expeditionary missile defense capability and we have to look at ways to be more responsive and to do it faster in the future.
And I’ll leave that as my final comment.
MS. DUNNE: Okay. Just a very quick follow-up. You talked about the possibility of a more assertive Iranian role in the Mediterranean should Bashar al-Assad stay in power in Syria. Whether or not there’s some sort of agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue, does that affect that one way or the other or would you – would you see Iran wanting to go in that direction regardless, even if there is some sort of agreement on the nuclear fight?
MR. EISENSTADT: Yeah. I think Iranian behavior during the negotiations has kind of been a mixed bag. They’ve – it seems that they’ve kind of drawn back in some areas where they were kind of, you know, pushing in the past. But in Syria, that’s an area where we’ve seen them kind of going all in. And this is an area that they consider to be apparently a vital interest of theirs. And it has not, from their point of view, affected negotiations. So if there’s an agreement, from their point of view, you know, there’s no reason why an agreement should affect their operations in Syria.
And, you know, the missile defenses – the European missile defenses will still be going forward. And, therefore, their efforts to counter these – you know, assuming that’s, you know, one thing that they want to do in Syria might go forward if that’s – if that’s one of the things they’re looking to do in Syria.
Again, I threw that out as a speculative kind of scenario, but it’s something we just need to keep in mind. So I don’t say this is something they’re going to do.
MS. DUNNE: Okay. Admiral Cosgriff, so Mike has talked a lot about the changing – the ever-changing nature of the threat environment in the Gulf and in the region more broadly, the Mediterranean as well as the Gulf, and so forth.
Another issue that often comes up is the lack of integration of defenses across the Gulf and in the region more broadly, interoperability and other kinds of issues, whether among Arab states or between the United States and Arab states. Could you tell us more about your view on this having operated so extensively in that arena?
KEVIN COSGRIFF: Sure. Well, I think Mike raised some really important points and one he was explicit at and other I inferred something from. And the explicit point was the requirement for missile defense goes beyond one-off defense of specific sites, which is – which is more akin to why the expeditionary PAC-3s, for instance, you talked about, are very much about a discrete response to protect typically military sites during an expeditionary response, a build-up phase or some term of art like that.
That is not missile defense of a state. You didn’t say it was, but missile defense of the state does include – of a state, of a nation has to include, first and foremost, its people. It has to include its economic and other vital resources. And it has to include its military for some of the purposes you mentioned, for counterstrike or for preemptive strike, whatever you want to call it. And, at the end of the day, all of that has to add up to some level of defending a nation’s credibility in situ in the Gulf. So that’s one overarching point.
The other thing is that lots of things in Washington get dismissed as not being rocket science. Well, this actually is rocket science. And I don’t want to insult the audience, but the technical hurdles for integrated missile defense are not insignificant. And there’s a reason only a handful of countries in the world have attained it so far. So this is not a small step for any grouping of nations. And it would be a major step for the GCC. At no point will they be able to defend everything, but they have to be – have sufficiency to defend the things that really matter.
Michele used the term interoperability. Basically, at a systems level, that’s two systems that have their independent functionality can exchange data to enhance the functionality of each and maybe there’s a little synergy from it. By the way, I’m not a systems engineer so don’t bash me on the questions.
Integration though is a much higher level concept that it implies architecting something, two or more systems or key components in order to create a new or a hyper-enhanced capability. Integrated missile defense is the latter and the key word is “integrated.” In fact, if it’s not integrated, it’s not going to work.
For instance, a given Aegis ship, as Mike said, can defend itself; can increasingly more than do have the ability to engage missiles, exoatmospheric and endoatmospheric ballistic missiles as the need arises. That’s not integrated missile defense. That’s a combat system capable of missile defense.
Put a bunch of Aegis together with some THAADs or PAC-3s Ashore with some other sensors, air breathers and otherwise, and you begin to get a sense of the complexity of an integrated missile defense system. And even small countries, like Bahrain, where I was able to live for a while, have a challenge on their hand, integrating something sufficient for the defense across the three criteria people, economic, and military resources, and credibility.
I think there’s a reason Secretaries Hagel, and, before him, Gates and others have used the term integrated because they’re aspiring to this higher level really because of physics of the problem drive them there. And it’s the devil in the details type when you put it all together because it has to work across and amongst the different components virtually every time.
We had very good success in Gulf One – the U.S. forces firing PAC-3s in Gulf One had a very high success rate of having hits in the air. It didn’t always get the warhead but we typically got a hit. We were firing on average three PAC missiles per threat. So there’s another dimension to this which is depth of fires, and I’ll talk on that later.
What does it mean to shoot down a ballistic missile? And, by the way, I agree with the setup for this conversation. It is at the high end of challenge for any country’s military, higher end of challenge and certainly for the GCC states. But, in many respects, I think it shows some of the challenges they have in other areas. And I’m more familiar with maritime defense being one, including air and missile defense in the maritime sphere. So while I’m going to be particular to missile defense, I think some of the lessons and applications are appropriate more broadly.
What do you need to be successful in missile defense? We’d like to think we have intelligence. We’re really talking about warning. So if you have strategic intelligence that they want to do something bad to you, chances are you’re not going to have discrete tactical intelligence about when it’s going to happen, where it’s going to be launched from, and what’s it aimed at. That’s pretty important information. You’re probably not going to have it until the absolute last minute, in which case, the second step of this cycle surveillance has to be effective more or less all the time. It’s not a ring the bell and man the equipment. The equipment has to be manned and operating more or less continuously as to keep apace of tensions rising or other demand signals.
If you want to detect a ballistic missile and you’re a GCC country, you’re going to use a long-range search radar. And so the missile is already in the air. It already has an address on it. So you’re detecting this thing well into flight as it breaks into the – across the horizon of your radar 400 kilometers away from where you’re standing. So the fight’s on and you’re just getting your first indication of it.
This information has to be converted into a track so you know where it’s going. It has to be sufficiently identified, and, well, there are not a lot of people throwing aluminum at me at that speed so I’m going to say this is hostile. And then you have to make a decision. And this decision, unlike many military operations, is pushed pretty far to the left. You have to make a decision because you’re dealing in seconds and, at the most, a handful of minutes. So the decision time is critical. That may bring into bear other sensors to give you more discrete information to help with that decision making, but then, again, it may not.
Now, if the U.S. is part of this, you might have a foot up on the detection and the warning, but not always, as we’ve learned to our own detriment over time. The system then has to designate the target. That’s a sort of a semi-technical term and some of these systems do it internally, but it was actually has to say, from radar A to radar B, in some cases a mode of radar A, that’s what I want you to shoot. And then that radar has to acquire it in time and space and say, I got it. I know where it is. I know where it’s going. I can predict its future flight path to some degree of accuracy.
Then you have to assign a missile launching system or an interceptor to the target, or more than one. You have to upload that interceptor with the relevant information because it has to be able to find it. And then you have to launch it. And, of course, you assess at the back end, and, typically, the same systems that are managing this battle give you pretty good assessment feedback; not always, but, usually, they do.
Now, this sort of simplified OODA loop that I’ve just gone through would have taken up a measurable amount of time at an actual missile engagement in the Gulf of something less than 500 kilometers. Think in terms of multiple machs (sp), high-end single digit mach speeds, and you get a sense of how quickly these things are coming at you and then how quickly you’re going to have to make decisions and follow-on decisions in that compressed battle space.
So that tactical compression of time is one of those details that really is complicated for sophisticated nations, political decision makers and military decision makers, extraordinarily complicated in multilateral settings. And given the history of cooperation amongst and between Gulf States, I think it would be extraordinarily difficult in a current environment to get where you needed to get so that it would work.
What’s needed? U.S. leadership, U.S. technical assistance will be the vital component of any attempts to develop an integrated air and missile defense system in the Gulf, and, as Mike said, tremendous progress over the last decade in that regard. And, frankly, in the maritime sphere also. And it goes far beyond just the sales, the foreign military sales of discrete systems. This involves our expertise being brought to bear in training, tactical procedures, helping with decision, delegation protocols being the seam filler between and amongst nations to share information more facile across a coherent network.
I believe that it would be essential in the near term and probably desirable over time to maintain a strong U.S. commitment of (afloat ?) missile air and defense into the Gulf. I’m not just shilling for the Navy to be true to my team, but not only does it bring mobility and extended surveillance and its own salvo of interceptors; the countries there will progress asymmetrically as they build out their own capability. And the threat does have certain avenues of approach that you might need to concentrate on. So I think that mobile and depth of fires and surveillance would be important.
Probably more than anything else, the GCC has to commit to this themselves. And I think Secretary Hagel was talking quite strongly to that. It’s expensive to build defense efficiency, period, and it’s especially expensive in missile defense for all the reason I’ve just described. You need interceptors. You need the support systems. You need the maintainers. You need all the backend to make sure that the system of systems is going to work, and that’s expensive. And it has to be sustained.
And if they don’t have that commitment to it, it won’t occur. It’s a 24/7 mission. The mission is on right now. They could conceivably – unlikely, conceivably get the proverbial bolt out of the blue attack but this bespeaks highly trained and highly focused operators. This is not part-time work. And there’s lots of hurdles to getting that degree of training depth and focus.
Flawless command and control has been implicit throughout. No time for decision by consensus, perhaps no time for decision by political authorities. They have to have thought this through ahead of time.
And, last, and maybe most importantly, is this willingness to share across all aspects of defense, and especially in this, because of the compression of time, because of the increase in accuracy of what’s being thrown at you.
The rhetorical question I would ask and maybe Bilal will help answer it is if the best shot for a missile headed into the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is from an interceptor in Qatar, will they take the shot? Thank you.
MS. DUNNE: Great. Okay, Bilal. So Mike has talked about the evolving nature of the threat and Admiral Cosgriff has spoken about the difficulties of the rocket science. So what about the political science? What about – you know, is this going to – is this going to happen? Is the commitment going to be there on the part of the Gulf and what about on the part of the United States?
BILAL SAAB: Well, Mike and Kevin have made it very easy for me because there’s very little to cover. So I’ll try to fill some of the gaps by talking about this nexus between politics and defense.
For those of you who know me, I’m a big fan of hardware because it saves lives. But the problem with hardware is that it doesn’t operate in a political vacuum.
Let me start with my bottom line here: without closer political relations and greater trust among the Gulf partners, this all defense cooperation business is not going to go very far. And that’s my bottom line.
You’ve got to be politically committed to collective exercises, and you’ve got to be sitting in one room basically with senior military leadership from every single GCC nation, and you can’t really send your representative because you don’t get along with your counterpart. And you’ve got to do gaming exercises, right, high-level table top, scenario-dependent exercises that will most probably center on the Iranian threat. None of that stuff is happening today. Why? Because the politics are messed up.
We, for good reason, have a tendency to criticize defense cooperation in the Gulf, but let me just highlight a couple of bright spots and then hit on the major issue of BMD integration because we’re still very far from achieving that.
So the bright spot is air defense integration. I think today, as you’re sitting in the UAE, you can see pretty much aircraft in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan because you have access to – and they all have access to the same data from the radars because they were able to develop finally a fiber optic basically system where it provides them basically with a common air picture throughout the entire peninsula. That’s as far as air defense.
Unfortunately, we can’t say the same about missile defense and the priority has always been, as Mike has mentioned and Kevin has also discussed it, is a fully integrated C4ISR capability and a shared early warning system. They’re still trying to modernize that, but the problem is, going back to the politics, they simply don’t agree on what that system will look like.
Oh, by the way, they don’t really share the same threat assessment and perceptions as far as the Iranian threat. It goes back to the question that Kevin has just raised: a missile just fired and the first system that sees it is actually based in Qatar so what do the Qataris do? And I was just asking Kevin that, but if the Americans are manning it, it’s not much of a problem. And I’m not really sure to what extent the Qataris have control over those systems, but it’s still a question to be raised. When you don’t share the same threat assessment, you have a problem.
Interoperability, we’d all be very rich people every time we mention that word. But interoperability is not a catchphrase. It’s really very serious business. And the United States has to chip in to actually achieve that objective in the GCC. Trust me, they get it. They get it that interoperability is very important. The problem is every time they want to achieve greater interoperability and they ask the United States for some gadgets and the United States is either incapable or very slow to provide, you’ve got a credibility problem. I don’t know why it took forever to provide Link 16. They asked for it in every single meeting some of those commanders. They want to be leaders in airpower. But you need the data link systems. And who has it? The United States and no one else.
Mike mentioned offense and how do you pair that with defensive capabilities. I mean, at the end of the day, you really want to achieve the greatest deterrent effect and you can’t just talk about missile defense. You’ve got to pair defensive capabilities with offensive capabilities. There are some bright spots on that front, bright spots in the sense that, recently, the United States has agreed to provide – let’s just limit it to the two defense heavyweights basically in the GCC, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with Standoff munitions. And those have made the Iranians very worried because you really don’t have to fly over Iranian airspace to hit some critical command centers inside Iran and possibly some leadership bunkers. Those provide a greater deterrent effect for at least these two countries combined with missile defenses.
Don’t put too much of a burden on missile defense. Try to pair your defensive capabilities with offensive capabilities. Standoff munitions are very important and they are causing some Iranians to not sleep very well at night.
Let me say a final word about cyber. You both mentioned that. A fully integrated BMD system can protect the skies of the GCC and is fantastic news. The problem is if you don’t pair that with a credible cyber defense doctrine, you’re very vulnerable. And so I would urge whoever is working with the GCC nations, primarily the United States, when you’re trying to integrate defensive capabilities and you’re trying to form an integrated business of defense system, please think more carefully about cyber. Once everything is integrated, you are automatically much more vulnerable on the cyber front.
We can discuss much more the politics and the infamous dispute amongst the GCC countries, but I’m happy to leave that to Q&A and we can get into details with that.
MS. DUNNE: Okay. We’ll open it up to questions now. I also wanted to give the panelists a chance, if they wanted to add any remarks or comment on each other’s remarks. Is there anything you want to say right now before we open it up to questions?
MR. COSGRIFF: I would like to say on the offensive part, A, it’s a lot more fun, but it’s not likely that in most scenarios that we’ll be able to see preemption as a – as a true alternative here against – putatively against Iran. It would mean another country might perceive the threat to be so imminent as to take that step. And so there’s a bit of a catch-up here. And it will talk ahead of timing, but that balance between the ability to defend yourself credibly and to counterstrike forcefully is a big part of it. But I’m just not sure that you’re not going to take the first attack. You have to be ready for that.
MR. EISENSTADT: Yeah. Actually, if I could just amplify. I agree with Admiral Cosgriff on that. And when I was talking about kind of attack operations, it’s after initiation, you know, in the event of a conflict, you have to conduct interdiction operations against the adversary’s missile infrastructure in order to disrupt his operations, in order to reduce the number of missiles coming in.
So I agree with you. Politics, we won’t be able to do prevention or preemption. But, you know, once the balloon goes up, then you’ll have – attack operations will have to be a key part of missile defense. So yeah, I agree.
MS. DUNNE: Okay. All right. So questions from the audience. I see the first hand. Wait for the mic to come to you and please introduce yourself. And then, let me know if your question is for a specific panelist.
Q: Sidney Joseph Freedberg from BreakingDefense.com. A question for the whole panel. In terms of U.S. support for providing technology, especially for offensive capabilities but even for the defensive capabilities and all the networking, how much is the slowness, the reluctance related to America’s overruling party on Israel getting the best stuff and a fundamental reluctance to give any Arab or Muslim country the level of equipment that we give Israel that actually could potentially one day use against Israel?
MS. DUNNE: Okay. (QME ?.)
MR. SAAB: I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve sat in with folks from certain agencies that are actually involved in that process. My understanding is the (QME ?) today is much less of a factor given its reduced strategic relevance in today’s environment in the Middle East. That’s not to say it’s not a factor at all.
But, primarily, the reason why things are slow is just because of bureaucracy and because there’s still a great need despite reforms made by this president to reform the expo control process, there’s still a great need to, frankly, overhaul the entire thing and adopt – as a recent guest we’ve had at one of our workshops here, adopt a much more strategic approach to FMS.
The Gulf partners are simply – and not just then frankly. A lot of European allies are simply fed up with the system. It takes forever. And even when there’s a willingness to actually provide stuff, by the time there’s a yes, the price would have gone up, and, frankly, whatever they wanted in the first place has changed because circumstances has changed. So there’s still a massive need for reform and, frankly, an overhaul of the entire process because it’s just not keeping up with regional trends and global trends.
MS. DUNNE: Mike.
MR. EISENSTADT: Yeah. I’ll just say – I mean, that’s my understanding is mainly bureaucracy. And we saw this at play with the issue of Apaches in Iraq, if I remember correctly that, in the end, if – again, my recollection is that we ended up leasing several because the whole process of – you know, foreign military sales is so time consuming that, you know, they have an immediate problem and we could promise them, you know, Apaches several years down the road. So we ended up, you know, leasing them equipment that was already in the inventory. So I think it is mainly bureaucracy. That’s my understanding.
I’ll just say there’s also just very mundane stuff like releasability issues, which is a big, big deal. You know, one of the big initiatives that we – you know, CENTCOM has been trying to push forward is this Gulf Combined Air Operation Center, where you have Gulf allies in the Combined Air Operation Center, where you could do face to face coordination and they have access to the – you know, common picture and the like, but there are so many problems – there have been so many problems related to releasability of information and classification and stuff like that with our allies that this is a constant problem as well.
So there are problems on our – you know, there are political problems on the Gulf side with them working together and there are problems on our side with regard to bureaucracy and releasability issues related to technical data and intelligence information and the like that the – you know, really are the source of a lot of problems.
MR. COSGRIFF: I haven’t done this since I retired a couple of times on the U.S. export side, a word in defense of FMS. It’s a once-burn – (inaudible) – system and the system writ large perceives it’s been burned. And so, like lots of things in Washington, many people get to say no. And I think that bias is sort of built in. It’s not simply bureaucratic. I think it’s deeper than that.
And there’s, frankly, sovereignty issues on both sides of the contract. We want the recipient to sign a CISMOA basically, you know, you won’t do bad things with our technology agreement, and they won’t do it. It’s an affront to their sovereignty in one country I’m familiar with. So there’s issues here that need to be worked out. And I think we need to be more biased towards our long-term friends in Europe, and Great Britain, and Japan, and even that’s difficult.
MS. DUNNE: Okay.
Q: Thank you to all the panelists. I’m Mike Elleman with the IISS. I think my question is directed mostly to the admiral and to Bilal, and that is on GCC integration on defense issues.
We’ve seen tremendous success on the maritime domain, where the U.S. has led, I think it’s all the GCC states plus I think there’s 17 or 18 other countries that are successfully battling piracy and WMD trade, things of that nature. But all that’s done offshore. And there’s little or there are a few concessions on sovereignty that the countries have to make in order to cooperate fully. Moreover, you know, the target to those operations is really not controversial. I mean, not very many people are friends with pirates. So that doesn’t instill any reluctance of one state not to participate fully, whereas on missile defense or other defense cooperation, especially if it’s aimed at Iran – you know, each of the GCC states has a different view or threat assessment as Bilal mentioned. And the history of the GCC in general is that anything that requires some kind of sovereignty concession has blocked any integration, whether it’s political, economic or defense oriented.
So, with that, I’d like to ask what do you think the prospects are of creating a truly integrated system that’s done across, organically across the GCC as opposed through – to a bilateral integration where the U.S. sits in the middle and you have hub – (bespoken ?) hub system?
And related to that, as a lot of the Gulf partners will say, well, we’d like to do the integration but you won’t release the technology. Export controls prevent us from integrating our systems internally. This has been especially a point made by the Emirates of late. So if you could comment on that please. Thank you.
MS. DUNNE: Want to start?
MR. COSGRIFF: I think it would be easier for us to overcome our bureaucratic hurdles for releasability before they would integrate to the cultural part of that, but let me speak a little bit about the maritime just for a second because I think you raised some good points.
The purpose of that Combined Maritime Forces Coalition never had anything to do with Iran. It was not Iran facing. That’s still true unless we change the terms of agreement, in which case, of the nine GCC countries, who’s going to want to sign up? It’s 22, 23 countries total, give or take.
So I think there’s some interesting subtleties there about how – I don’t want to call it mission creep, but, for instance, piracy was not part of the combined maritime forces remit until 2010 or something like that. Captain Phillips just wasn’t something that they did; something I did as U.S. Fifth Fleet in my national hat but it’s not what I did in my combined hat. Everything was bilateral or trilateral with likeminded countries that are willing to do something.
My personal view is that this bilateral, multilateralism with us being the hub is the prudent way forward us collectively – our Western European friends too will be part of this – is the way to go to really create this over time and it will tend to attenuate some of those releasability issues. But there’s going to be times when there’s just – I was always asked, you know, there’s times when we’re not in the room. The answer is yes. There’s times you’re not in the room.
MR. SAAB: Well, I’ll never say I’m a NATO expert, especially working at an institution that has the brightest minds on NATO, but I think that the GCC – just to go back on the issue of sovereignty, the GCC can look at NATO and see that NATO countries were able to increase their defense cooperation without really losing much of their sovereignty. So that’s a model for them to emulate. Probably it’s going to take more than a week. But that’s something to look at.
MS. DUNNE: Okay.
Q: Thank you. Jonathan Gartenberg (ph) from the George Washington University. Admiral Cosgriff, you said when the system sees a fast-moving projectile in the air, you say, not a lot of nations are throwing aluminum at me so this has to be hostile and we’re working systems that will reliably shoot that down.
And, Mr. Eisenstadt, you said that a nation like Iran perceives their opponents’ missile defenses to be effective, they’re going to shift their focus towards terrorism, whether it’s cyber terrorism or disrupting the Gulf.
But I’d like to know if this is a strong paradigm because why – what’s stopping a country like Iran from bombarding us with missiles that lack warhead to overwhelm our systems?
MR. COSGRIFF: First of all, they can’t reach us. But I happen to believe that the bulk of it – well, not believe. I think it’s a fact the bulk of the Iranian ballistic missile force will never ever have anything to do with nuclear weapons, assuming they were to get them at some point. That’s conventional bombardment for us.
So I would sort of take the nuclear part out of it and say that’s enough of a problem. And I think Mike made the point that they’ve been building up over time. And the defenses are catching up, but the depth of fire argument that I gave you is still significant. If it takes two to get a kill, then they just outshoot you. So, you know, if you’re defending something that’s truly vital, you can’t afford to miss. So you’ll shoot the number it takes.
MR. EISENSTADT: I guess what I was saying that – it wasn’t a prediction or it was kind of a contingent statement that if we build defenses that neutralize, effectively neutralize their missile capabilities, they will then rely – they will then try to rely more on other, you know, elements of their deterrent war fighting – used to be triad but now they have, you know, cyber I think, which is kind of the fourth leg of their kind of, you know, defense concept and deterrence concept.
And, you know, the bottom line is, look, missiles are very important for them. They use them for parades. They use it in lieu of – you know, even though I agree that they are primarily a conventional bombardment system, but I think the Iranians use the fact that, in our eyes, we tend to associate missiles with WMD and nuclear as a nuclear delivery system, they use it for propaganda purposes. And that’s why they always roll them out on parades. And while denying having nuclear weapons ambitions, they then can roll out the missiles and kind of, you know, strike fear in the hearts of their neighbors and the like.
So missiles still will remain very important for them on a symbolic level, and during a crisis, when you need the ability to reach out in very – and you’re doing a fast-moving crisis, there are certain things that missile can do that those other means, whether it be terrorism or maritime interdiction or cyber, can’t do.
So we’ll always – it will still be an important part of their doctrine and their force structure. But, again, if you neutralize that, they will – they might then be inclined to rely on these other legs and, therefore, you have to – in building your ability to counter the threat, you have to have a balanced approach, not just missile defense but, you know, defense against cyber, counter-terror, and, you know, an ability to ensure freedom of navigation in the Gulf. So that’s all.
MR. SAAB: Well, when you mentioned what prevents the Iranians from firing a missile or a decoy against the United States, I thought you were really talking about U.S. forces in the region, because Kevin is absolutely right. For now, those missiles can’t reach the U.S. homeland because they simply don’t have an ICBM. Although, if you believe intel assessments, by now, they should have had one. We are in 2014. So that was the most recent intel assessment. But they don’t, luckily.
The thing we often forget, but I’m sure strategic planners in the Pentagon and folks in the Fifth Fleet do not forget at all, is that U.S. forces, no matter how robust they are in the Gulf, they’re actually very vulnerable. And they’re heavily concentrated in some very constrained spaces. You’ve got some pretty critical assets in that region. They are all at the mercy of Iranian missiles.
And it goes back to your question. Would they be stupid enough to fire anything? We don’t know. I mean, they’re pretty sure that there will be a swift and decisive response that we don’t know how it will end up. But the fact that they have developed especially their short-range and medium-range capabilities missiles to an extent where they are actually really a factor in this entire military situation in the Gulf, even though they would never dare to fire a missile, it’s something to think about. It really gets into the power dynamic and the competition between the United States and Iran just having that capability. Whether or not you use it it’s an entirely different matter.
Q: Ian Brzezinski from the Atlantic Council. Last year on this panel, one of the panelists talked about – someone in the UAE – about the need for greater cooperation between the GCC and NATO on missile defense. And the rationale, if I remember correct, was along the lines of – I’m probably injecting a little bit of my own view is, one, are there lessons to be learned, as Bilal talked about, from NATO? Two, as a multilateral organization, it might be an additionally useful catalyst for GCC cooperation.
And then, third, there might be a lot, not in addition to lessons learned in terms of practices and operations, but also situational awareness through the sharing of sensors. Do you see – have you seen over the last year any pick up in terms of the GCC’s relationship with NATO in this area? Do you see potential for this or is this something that’s not really worth pursuing?
MS. DUNNE: Do you want to start with that, Bilal?
MR. SAAB: I’ll say a few words about that, but then I’ll defer the technicalities to the smarter people.
There surely is a desire among at least the UAE to strengthen its partnership with NATO. What does that mean exactly? I really don’t know. But I think that other GCC nations will follow suit if some benefits become clear regarding greater cooperation between the UAE and NATO.
How feasible is it to try to copy what is happening inside NATO as far as defense cooperation within the Gulf, I can defer to Kevin, but I am much more interested – and you mentioned that already – and I am much more interested in how there are always exercises and studies regarding CONOPS and TTPs within NATO and how they really think about gaming scenarios with enemies. It’s just that the GCC – it’s either not happening at all because – in certain rooms, I simply cannot be there to know whether it’s actually happening. But I can for sure say that it’s not happening enough. There’s a lot to be learned from what’s happening inside NATO, that the GCC can do at least as far as CONOPS and TTPs. The technicalities I’ll defer to Kevin and Mike.
MR. COSGRIFF: I think to sort of get below the political level, bringing two committees together, I was just trying to figure how that would work. And, frankly, the U.S. view of NATO maybe makes us less competent to talk about how NATO actually works because there tends to be that 500-pound gorilla phenomenon amongst Americans in NATO.
But aside from that, I think you hit on a key thing: the ability to come together and talk about things below that political noise level that are real, that are tangible, that transmit experience, knowledge, skills, tremendous amount of expertise that could be brought to bear, and should be brought to bear, and is being brought to bear mostly bilaterally by our NATO allies into the Gulf.
Frankly, the military sales of non-U.S. military sales into the Gulf are a vector for that. And coordinating that and helping to build a coherent fighting force – pick a country, UAE – out of the sort of mélange of capability they have on their runways or in their ports or in their Army units would be a major accomplishment. And then the knitting together, the cultural knitting together that NATO is able to do would be the – would be the crème on top of that.
MR. EISENSTADT: Just a little twist on this, and might come as a surprise or some people might be skeptical. I actually think in light of developments in the region, there is the potential for low-level quiet cooperation even between Israel and the Gulf countries in the area of missile defense.
There is – we’re seeing things, even just with regard to Israel and its own immediate neighbors with regard to natural gas sales and water sharing agreements with Jordanians, the PA, and Egypt, and now, because of the shared perception of a threat from Iran, there has been for a long time intelligence sharing between Israel and some of the Gulf States. And, you know, some people have gone on to speculate about, well, if the Israelis wanted to strike, could they get, you know, access, basing, over flights, and I think that’s a bridge too far.
But in terms of cooperation on missile defense, I think that’s one area at least sharing, you know, Israeli lessons learned with the Gulf States, although they’re probably getting via the U.S. anyhow already. But there might be a potential for quite cooperation in that area, and also civil defense, because that’s an area where Israel has done a lot and there’s a need for more in the Gulf.
MR. SAAB: Can I just share with you a quick story? In my previous capacity, one of the things that I wanted to do and include in my portfolio is try to conduct some red teaming exercises that would involve at least all the defense attaches of the Gulf diplomatic community in here.
It was a great idea, but it never worked, the reason being is that every time I would pick up the phone and call one of the defense attachés in each GCC embassy, the first question that would be on the other side of the line was, who’s – who’s also in the room? And I would tell them, you’re going to have a lot of people from the Pentagon, a lot of people from the think tank community but no. Okay, so who’s also going to be from the GCC? Then I’d tell them, well, for now, we don’t have anybody but you are welcome to join. And he said, well, if I’m there on my own, I’m good. I don’t want to be in the same room with the others. And I tried so hard to find the most comfortable setting for these people to be in the same room, to engage in such simulations and exercises. It just simply wasn’t possible.
And I realized later that this idea was not really bright or new anyway. I mean, a lot of people have tried it in the past. But I thought that maybe with another Arab who understands them, it would really try to form as comfortable a political environment for them as possible that maybe that will be feasible. And perhaps with the new changes in the Middle East and this greater desire to cooperate on security, it will be possible. But that didn’t work out at all.
So it just gives you an indicator, if that’s not happening in Washington, then maybe Washington has a toxic and politically charged environment. I don’t know. But if it’s not happening here, it’s not happening in the GCC.
MS. DUNNE: Bilal, look, while you’re on this subject, let me just draw you out a little bit on Saudi Arabia-Qatar, right? We saw this, you know, rift and then something of a patching over of differences. Where do you see things now between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States such as the Emirates?
MR. SAAB: So I wish I were in that room where they had the Gulf foreign affairs ministerial meeting where they kissed and made up. And the (Yemenis ?) told us along with Kuwaitis that this thing is now of the past, really. We have resolved our differences and the feud is over. I really would like to believe that.
But if you objectively examine the roots of the dispute, especially between the Qataris and the Saudis, this thing is far from over. The main issues that they disagreed on are still there. I’m not sure how they resolved them other than just issuing a statement that things are okay now.
And I don’t need to remind this audience that they disagreed on some really fundamental issues. These are not minor issues. Support for the Muslim Brotherhood is I think on top of the list of disagreements. Who knows what the Qataris may have decided to concede on, but the fact of the matter is that the Qataris still have a very different strategic path from the Saudis and from the UAE. And geography and economics basically explain why they’re in a very different situation from the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Just recently we heard that the Saudi foreign affairs minister has invited his Iranian counterpart to talk, talk about a range of issues. I like the term negotiations. I mean, there isn’t a dispute really between the Saudis and Iranians. There’s a fierce regional power struggle but the term “negotiations” was really intriguing for me because – I mean, what are you negotiating about? I mean, there’s nothing really of a territorial dispute between the two. But what I understood is that, obviously, when you talk about negotiations, we’re really talking about Iranian influence in Bahrain, Iranian influence in other places, of course, the Eastern province in Saudi Arabia. All these things have to be negotiated at the end of the day.
Who knows what the talks will usher, but it’s certainly a positive sign because we have always believed, as a Middle Eastern analyst, that they key to greater stability – and, of course, the term stability is such a loaded term – but the key to greater security – let’s just leave it at that – is an understanding, not really reconciliation because it might take forever, but an understanding of some rules of the game for this competition between the Saudis and the Iranians because, really, at the end of the day, this is what is fueling a lot of the fires in several theaters basically in the Middle East.
So we’ll see how that plays out because it will certainly have implications on relations amongst the GCC nations amongst themselves.
MS. DUNNE: Let’s see. Any other questions? There’s one in the back of the room.
Q: (Off mic) – with “SEAPOWER” magazine. Admiral Cosgriff, you cited earlier the maritime threat anti-ship missiles. This program is basically on ballistic missiles but wouldn’t that be – that’s a cruise missile threat isn’t it? And the question is how good are we at countering that? And is there any cooperation among our allies in the Persian Gulf, you know, to develop common defenses against anti-ship cruise missiles?
MR. COSGRIFF: The U.S. in the main is an Aegis surface combatant force so they’re very capable against the full range of Iranian anti-ship missiles, land launched and sea launched. They have some very tough ones that are coming into their inventory but we have very good interceptors for that. And the next generation that’s coming online, standard missile six, is even better. So those are the standoff engagement weapons and our close in, hard kill and soft kill is for now a pace of that threat.
NATO allies that operate in the Gulf on occasion are right up on step with us, either Aegis, explicit cases or in some cases their own derivative or their own inventions thereof and their own interceptions. The French are especially good in this regard; the Brits every bit as good as Aegis apps at the range of some of our longer range interceptors. So it’s okay for now.
The point was made about concentration of forces in the Gulf. It’s a relatively large body of water, notwithstanding the fact that it’s, you know, constrained at one end. It’s not a free fire zone for anybody. You’ve got to find us first. So we do fight back so there’s issues for attacking a U.S. warship or an allied warship that do pose some problems for the attacker.
The anti-ship ballistic missile, less of an issue in this theater anytime soon but it will be coming to a theater near us someplace in the world. And we’re working on how to deal with that and we think we have some ideas.
MS. DUNNE: Are there any other questions? Please.
Q: Thank you. Pipel Lee (ph), Voice of America. Mr. Saab, you were saying the United States has a credibility issue in the region in terms of missile defense systems. Can you give us an example, maybe Turkey considering buying Chinese systems? Is that the way to go for Turkey and other nations?
And, for the admiral, please, do you have any updated information in terms of Chinese helping the Iranians develop their missile capability and specifically against U.S. forces in the region? Thank you.
MR. SAAB: The United States has an overall credibility issue in the Middle East and it doesn’t just stop at missile defense. It goes all the way from Syria to Egypt, to Yemen, to pretty much any other country in the region.
You can say goodbye to interoperability the moment that the Turks really buy a Chinese system. And that’s going to upset a lot of NATO countries I’m sure and they know that very well. How much of it is a ploy really to get the best price, I’m not sure. I’ll leave it to other NATO experts to really figure out the Turkish mindset on that. But, yes, the United States has a credibility issue and words need to start matching deeds. And this administration has done a poor job basically of doing that. But it’s never too late. It’s never too late.
MS. DUNNE: Bilal, let me pursue that a little bit, okay? So President Obama visited Saudi Arabia; the secretary of defense has been out to the Gulf a couple of times. We’re seeing some movement in U.S. policy toward Syria, greater cooperation with the Gulf on that, certainly not what they were looking for necessarily on that. But, I mean, how is it going? I mean, there has been a U.S. effort I think to improve relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries.
MR. SAAB: See, the problem is when you try to distinguish between this credibility problem and actual objective disagreements, you really don’t know what we’re dealing with here. At the end of the day, the United States has some really strong disagreements with the Saudis on a number of issues. So it doesn’t matter what’s –
MS. DUNNE: But that’s always been the case. There have always been differences on issues.
MR. SAAB: That’s true, but the problem is that the Saudis, for the first time in a very long time, are feeling increasingly vulnerable and insecure. And that has changed. I think that there’s a reason why they have done their own pivot to the East and they have done a series of meetings with pretty much every single Asian country, signing a number of MOUs with them, some of them related to defense, others not so much.
And that pivot, frankly, has preceded this proclaimed U.S. pivot to the Asia Pacific by almost a decade. Now, does Saudi Arabia have a really reliable alternative to the United States? We can debate that forever. Some would strongly say no; others not to so much. But it is clear that Saudi Arabia is not putting all its eggs in one basket.
MS. DUNNE: Okay. The other two panelists, a final word. Mike, anything you want to add?
MR. COSGRIFF: China sales, missiles, anti-ship missiles all over the world I think is the best way to answer that question. I would point out that notwithstanding the recently signed gas deal with the Russians, China gets a lot more of its petroleum energy out of the Gulf’s global market but they get a lot more particular out of the Gulf than we do and many of our allies do.
So their long-term interest to be sort of creating mischief that might result in some sort of flare-up of activity in the Gulf which could impact that shipping I think would be a matter of concern. I’ve said, in my previous life, we wouldn’t let the Iranians close the Strait of Hormuz. I still believe that to be true but it doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t control shipping.
MR. EISENSTADT: Yeah. The only thing I would just add to that is that with regard to the proposed Turkish purchase of the Chinese air defense system, first of all, my understanding, unless something’s happened in the recent days, that’s not been finalized yet, if my understanding is correct. And so I don’t think it’s a done deal. And I think it’s – in that case, it’s important to see it as part of a general – I wouldn’t say reorientation of Turkish foreign policy. And I’m not sure it’s strictly related to lack of confidence in the United States. It’s part of kind of a different approach that the current Turkish government has kind of struck out on.
With regard to the Gulf countries, you know, we continue to engage in major arm sales to the region and they continue to buy from the United States. There’s always been a degree of diversification among many of our allies in this part of the world. And, you know – I mean, we could expect to continue to see them buying stuff from elsewhere beside the United States, France and the U.K. but in small amounts, except for the Egyptian, the reported Egyptian arms deal, and then there’s reports of a deal with Iraq, and, again, I’m not quite sure if those are going to go forward.
So the bottom line is we still are the main supplier of arms because they want to be able to operate with us, but they are shopping around for alternatives. But the bottom line is there really aren’t a lot of alternatives because if they go to Russia, well, the Russians are supporting the side in the Syria conflict that’s – all of these Gulf allies are opposed to. So they have – they have limited options in terms of finding arms from other places. And there really is no substitute, you know, for the United States as an ally.
And the problem is political, as, you know, Bilal said before. I think the militaries have excellent relationships. But I think the problem is lack of faith in our political leadership. And I would have hoped that, you know, the crisis in Syria and the way it’s evolving provides us with an opportunity to correct that, and we’ll see if, you know, there’s change there in the coming weeks and months.
MS. DUNNE: So we set out to discuss defense and we end up starting and ending with politics.
Anyway, the time for the panel is at an end. I believe we’re now going to have a 30-minute lunch break – is that correct? – and be back here at 1:30 p.m. But please join me in thanking Admiral Cosgriff, Mike Eisenstadt, and Bilal Saab. (Applause.)