Six hundred PAC-3s could saturate the skies above the Persian Gulf
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
The P5+1 deal with Iran promises to halt Tehran’s ability to produce a nuclear bomb. But one condition is that the world roll back its arms embargoes, allowing Iran to shop for weapons — even ballistic missile technology — from Russia and China.
Now Saudi Arabia is reacting. On July 29, the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency — which announces major arms sales — disclosed that Saudi Arabia wants to spend $5.4 billion on 600 U.S.-made PAC-3 missiles. The primary purpose of these missiles is to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles.
It’s a tremendous number of PAC-3s, the most advanced missile for the Patriot launcher on the market. If the sale happens, it’ll allow Saudi Arabia to make the skies above the Persian Gulf an exceedingly deadly place to be.
Suffice to say, it’s hardly a coincidence. The world may have averted a nuclear crisis or a military showdown. But it hasn’t averted an arms race.
The Lockheed Martin produced PAC-3 is designed to be highly maneuverable, and includes a “kay-ay” band sensor for tracking and intercepting ballistic missiles inside their terminal phase.
Ballistic missiles travel in an upward arc, high into the atmosphere, before crashing down at tremendous speeds. The terminal phase is the final stage as the missile is coming down.
Iran has the largest military in the region, which is equipped with hundreds of ballistic missiles, but spends only $15 billion per year on its military, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The Gulf Cooperation Council nations outspend Tehran by six times that number — and puts that spending to use by buying up Western hardware.
Of the GCC’s six members, at least five of them — including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — field Patriot missiles. In June 2014, the U.S. announced that Qatar would also buy Patriots. Lush oil wealth, a willingness to spend it on weapons and an eager seller in the United States makes it possible.
But the technology and spending is split between six countries, which makes the alliance vulnerable, analyst Anthony Cordesman noted in a recent report for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Interceptor stocks will be limited and easy to exhaust, and there will not be time to work around a lack of automated command and control and immediate authority to fire,” Cordesman wrote.
“The problems cause by the lack of integration and interoperability are bad enough in other military missions, in the case of nuclear-armed or precision guided missiles, they could be suicidal.”
With so many missile-defense systems in the region, one of the problems is making sure the different operators can coordinate with each other. If Iranian missiles began screaming across the Persian Gulf, multiple countries fearing attack would start shooting back at the same targets — a redundant waste.
Further, U.S. allies in the region are not just buying up Patriots — but defenses for smaller, shorter-range and shoulder-fired missiles of the kind that can bring down a jumbo jet.
Also on July 29, the DSCA announced that the United Arab Emirates wants to buy anti-aircraft missile countermeasure systems for its fleet of government jets — which includes several Boeing 747 and 777 passenger planes.
The pending sale worth is $335 million for 30 AN/AAQ 24(V) infrared jammers and other equipment made by defense giant Northrop Grumman. These systems will integrate with the UAE’s “Head of State aircraft,” according to the DSCA.
These electronics can scramble infrared-homing sensors on a wide variety of handheld anti-aircraft missiles that have proliferated among insurgent groups — including Islamic State — in Iraq and Syria.
Congress must approve the sales before they happen, which is likely. But it’s illustrative of what Riyadh and the Gulf kingdoms perceive as threats. There’s Iran and ballistic missiles — and terrorist groups armed with shoulder-launched weapons capable of bringing down an airliner.