Israel-Arab Air Defense Alliance A Real Possibility Due To Iran Threat
In an exclusive interview with The War Zone, former CENTCOM commander Frank McKenzie talks about the Middle East Air Defense Alliance.
Israel and several Arab nations are “down the road a good bit” toward creating a system to share information about Iranian missile and air defense threats to the region, the most recent former commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) tells The War Zone.
“You'd like to have a common operational picture that everyone can share so that everyone has immediate knowledge of threats, and can take actions to protect themselves and protect others,” Frank McKenzie, the retired Marine general who commanded CENTCOM until April, told The War Zone in an exclusive interview Friday morning. “Nations are open to sharing intelligence, sharing air defense information, and I think it's a big step forward. We've taken some very specific steps there that I can't share the details [about.]”
The range of threats from Iran and its proxies in the region - ballistic and cruise missiles as well as drones - makes this cooperation effort, dubbed the Middle East Air Defense Alliance, especially valuable.
A common situational awareness, leading to early detection of these threats, is a mutually beneficial asperation for Israel and the Arab nations. Drones, in particular, are a challenging threat. They are hard to spot, can fly relatively slow and over great distances, often at low altitude. This means early warning is very problematic, but with an integrated air picture over the region, it would drastically improve.
“The growing threat posed by these systems coupled with our lack of dependable, networked capabilities to counter them is the most concerning tactical development since the rise of the improvised explosive device in Iraq," McKenzie said at a Middle East Institute think tank event in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 8. "They provide adversaries the operational ability to surveil and target U.S. and partner facilities while affording plausible deniability and a disproportionate return on the investment, all in our adversaries’ favor."
With Arab nations equipped with increasingly advanced U.S.-made air and missile defense systems laying between Iran and Israel's borders, the latter has an especially potent interest in seeing such a previously unthinkable level of cooperation come to pass.
There is still a long way to reach the level of military cooperation among Israel and Arab nations like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, and other nations that the Middle East Air Defense alliance aspires to, McKenzie told The War Zone.
But the work is well underway.
“We’re not at the first step,” said McKenzie, who now heads up the University of South Florida's newly created Global and National Security Institute. “We're further down than we've ever been, but because of the sensitivities involved, I'm not going to be able to give you any more information.”
In March, however, McKenzie met with top military leaders of those nations, plus officers from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, to discuss such a system, according to the Wall Street Journal, which reported it was the first time senior leaders of all those nations met under U.S. auspices.
Still, the effort has already led to some measure of success, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz told Israeli lawmakers last month.
“Over the past year I have been leading an extensive program, together with my partners at the Pentagon and in the U.S. administration, that will strengthen the cooperation between Israel and countries in the region,” he said, according to an official transcript, Reuters reported June 20.
“This program is already operative and has already enabled the successful interception of Iranian attempts to attack Israel and other countries."
The transcript did not name partner countries nor give further details on the thwarted attacks.
McKenzie declined to cough up any details.
“I'm not gonna be able to speak to any specific incident,” McKenzie told The War Zone when asked about Gantz’ comments. “But I would tell you that we have demonstrated an ability to share information about emerging threats and help nations address those threats and that's really all I care to say.”
The War Zone reached out to Israel's Ministry of Defense for further details of the interceptions and countries Gantz referenced. We will update this story with any additional information provided.
The Pentagon told The War Zone it “is well aware of” Gantz’ statements and deferred further questions about them to Israel.
“DoD’s commitment to increasing regional cooperation against shared threats emanating from Iran is nothing new, and the United States’ commitment to Israel’s security remains ironclad,” Army Maj. Rob Lodewick, a Pentagon spokesman, told The War Zone. “Expanding integrated deterrence and more networked security cooperation remains a high priority amidst an emerging consensus among many Middle East partners that integrated air and missile defense, and enhanced maritime security, can help defend against and counter shared threats.”
Last month, Yoni Ben Menachem, a longtime Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television and senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center, tweeted that the U.S. involvement in this alliance could involve a deeper military commitment than mere advising.
“The planned air defense alliance against Iran will include the establishment of a joint [command], possibly at the [CENTCOM] headquarters in Qatar," he tweeted, "and the deployment of radar, surveillance, and alert systems in Arab countries to detect Iranian ballistic missiles and UAVs for interception.”
McKenzie declined to comment about those specifics. But he said that “all of these countries have very good radar systems. Many of them are our Patriot systems.”
The goal, then, is not to install new radar systems, “but rather practices, techniques and procedures that would allow you to share that information better.”
That “improved efficiency and sharing information” could be “done in a variety of places. Certainly, the CAOC [Combined Air Operations Center] at Al Udeid Airbase [in Qatar] is one. There are possibly other locations [where] that could occur and I don’t want to limit the future of where those could be.”
As for what role the U.S. military could play in the Mid East Air Defense Alliance, McKenzie said that America remains the “partner of choice” in the region, despite encroachments from Russia and China.
“Every nation in the region wants to have a relationship with the United States,” he said. “Not only because of our weapons, which are very good, but because of all of the things that come with an association with the United States. So it is only natural that as they reach out and increase ties with each other, they view the United States in some ways as an honest broker who can help these relationships move forward, particularly their relationships between nations that don't have a history of having strong ties.”
A good example of the popularity of U.S. weapons in the region is the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, which made its first combat kill earlier this year on Iranian-backed Houthi ballistic missile in the United Arab Emirates.
Beyond that, despite the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, it still has “significant resources in the Middle East,” he said. “We still have significant Air Command Control and Air Force air defense resources in the theater. As far as I know, they're going to remain and help provide a backbone going forward.”
Still, the long-term goal is to ween the region of dependence on the U.S. “to allow us to focus on other areas if we need to.”
The idea of regional air defense is not new. Turkey and Israel, for instance, briefly pursued joint-production of Arrow in the late 1990s, War On The Rocks reported in 2015. The U.S.-GCC Strategic Cooperation Forum in 2014 reaffirmed its intent to create “a Gulf-wide, interoperable missile defense architecture.” And the Integrated Air and Missile Defense Center, at Al Bateen AB, UAE, offers simulation and modeling-based instruction, and combines a large amount of training for both ballistic and cruise missile defense education, according to Air Force Magazine.
But the timing for this latest cooperation effort, once unthinkable given long-standing enmity between Israel and those Arab nations, is right, McKenzie told The War Zone.
“The reason that people are interested in doing that now is because the threat from Iranian ballistic missiles, land-attack cruise missiles, and unmanned aerial systems is now more pressing than it has ever been at any point in the past,” said McKenzie. “Over the last five to seven years, Iran has extensively upgraded their arsenal of these weapons and they've used them against their neighbors.”
McKenzkie pointed to Houthi missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia and the barrage of Iranian ballistic missiles on the Al-Asad Airbase in Iraq in 2020 as examples. More than 100 U.S. troops suffered traumatic brain injuries during that attack.
Israeli has established expertise in air defense technology, like the Iron Dome system that has proven successful in knocking down incoming fire, particularly from Gaza. That, said McKenzie, is attractive to Arab nations which, like Israel, face missile and drone threats from Iran, McKenzie said.
“Israel works with all the nations in the region,” he said. “Those are sometimes bilateral agreements between them. And I wouldn't be able to speculate further on that, but I would tell you that Israel has a lot of expertise to bring because they've got decades of experience [at air defense]. They have excellent technology, and all the nations of the region realize that.“
Israel said it exhibited an example of that technology last week, claiming it downed three Hezbollah drones on Saturday heading toward the Mediterranean Ocean gas rig it was about to open.
One of the Hezbollah drones was shot down by an Israeli Air Force F-16 fighter jet, and the other two by BARAK 8 surface-to-air (SAM) missiles launched from the Sa’ar 5 Class Corvette INS Eilat, the military said in a statement, according to the Times of Israel.
Threats against the gas rig are the latest concerns Israel has about attacks from the sea, something Gantz pointed out by revealing satellite images showing "unusual" Iranian maritime activity in the Red Sea. Attack vectors from the south as far away as Yemen have been a growing concern of Israel after seeing Saudi Arabia come under constant threat of long-range drone, cruise, and ballistic missile attacks. Advanced Iranian-backed attacks of an increasingly complex nature on strategic targets in the Kingdom have only underlined the validity of these fears.
Last year, Israel launched a new early-warning aerostat, a type of unmanned tethered airship, described as one of the largest of its kind in the world. Developed by Israeli industry with U.S. assistance, the High Availability Aerostat System, or HAAS, will be expected to provide advance warning of low-flying threats, such as cruise missiles, weaponized drones, and other aerial threats. You can read more about that here.
While Israel and the Arab nations have been increasing cooperation over the years, those efforts were boosted, said McKenzie, when CENTCOM assumed responsibility for U.S. military activity in Israel last year. Adding Israel under the CENTCOM umbrella has only increased military-to-military relations between once bitter foes.
“When Israel came into the Central Command Area of Responsibility that made it a lot easier for many of these nations to cooperate with Israel, even as we saw the opening of diplomatic relations and the Abraham Accords and the other elements of normalization of relations that have proceeded subsequent to that. Now we're beginning to see some of these things happen at the military-to-military level."
Besides, sharing information about the threat environment, tips, and early warning “is a lot easier to do than working with ground combat forces,” said McKenzie.
Despite the increasing cooperation between Israel and Arab nations, impediments to further cooperation exist, particularly the unsettled future of the Palestinians and long-standing concerns about how Israel treats them.
“I think there's a lack of trust,” McKenzie said when asked about how continued Arab concerns about Palestinians could affect the alliance. “You have to build trust. Some nations have a very high degree of trust with each. Other nations have a high degree of trust with us.”
The key to any future success is building trust and getting to a point “where you actually have a degree of confidence that [when] you get information somewhere, you're not going to misuse it."
It takes time and the commitment of senior leaders to build that trust.
The Israel-Palestinian conflict "certainly is an impediment, but I believe if you practice exercises, just through repetition, you get to the point where people gain a level of trust. So I believe there's a way to actually reduce that.”
While that level of trust in Israel “varies from neighbor to neighbor” McKenzie said “I think everyone in the theater generally recognizes the utility of having a relationship with Israel, the unique capabilities they bring to the defense of the region, and the fact that they are in fact the target of Iran, as are many of the nations in the region. So that sort of brings you together in a community of interest when someone's going after you.”
Having U.S. operations in Israel under the CENTCOM umbrella also means increased cooperation and training exercises between the U.S. and Israel.
Last month, senior CENTCOM leaders and staff visited their Israel Defense Forces (IDF) counterparts in Tel Aviv. It was the first executive-level "progress check" since the U.S. military realigned Israel from U.S. European Command to CENTCOM in September 2021, according to CENTCOM.
The new relationship with CENTCOM is “strong and continually growing,” said the commander of Air Forces Central (AFCENT), according to CENTCOM. “AFCENT’s theater security cooperation, both with the IDF and other regional partners, has expanded and evolved over the last year,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Greg Guillot, the AFCENT commander. “As the threats in the region change, so has the approach AFCENT takes alongside regional partners to address these challenges.”
Countering the unmanned aircraft systems threat and integrating air and missile defense capabilities are too complex for one nation to address alone, Guillot said.
Israel’s security relationships have expanded into maritime cooperation as well, said the U.S. Navy’s top Middle East commander.
“Israel was one of 10 nations during International Maritime Exercise 2022 that employed unmanned systems during complex scenarios at sea,” said U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, U.S. 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces.
Between the increased cooperation between Israel and its neighbors, and Israel and the U.S., Iran is taking note.
Iran’s Armed Forces Chief of Staff, Major General Mohammad Bagheri, issued a stark warning June 27 against Israel’s membership in CENTCOM and the growing relations between Israel and Arab nations.
“We will not tolerate these threats and we will certainly give responses to them,” he said, according to the state-run Tehran Times.
Tehran’s concerns, said McKenzie, are proof that the U.S.-led cooperation efforts are working.
“I think Iran is very concerned about it because what it does is it reduces their ability to bully their neighbors, which is a long-term staple of Iranian foreign policy,” he said. “Remember, our goal here is not to fight Iran. Our goal is to deter Iran to prevent Iran from undertaking irresponsible reckless and dangerous bloody actions abroad, by recognizing that the price they pay will be higher than any potential game they can realize.”
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