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The US Is Selling Patriot Missiles To Its GCC Allies

May 17, 2019

Via Wikimedia Commons.

Separate batches of Patriot PAC-3 missiles and their launchers are soon arriving in two Gulf states. On May 3 the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) made simultaneous announcements that requests for sales of air defenses by Bahrain and the UAE were approved, totaling $5.2 billion. The oil-rich island near the Saudi coast is receiving a battery of PAC-3 SAMs while the Emirates’ military can look forward to 452 new missiles for their own deployed Patriots. The timing of the DSCA is fortuitous with the sudden war clouds gathering over the region.

Mere days after these arms sales were announced the USS Abraham Lincoln and its escorts were ordered to the Persian Gulf, kicking off a military build up that looks like Washington, DC is preparing to attack its regional foe Iran. By May 10, a Friday, US CENTCOM’s own news service published a photo of the USS Abraham Lincoln in the Suez Canal. Within 24 hours a quartet of B-52H strategic bombers arrived in Qatar. By then the White House announced it wanted to deter hostile actions by Iran against US forces in the region. Over the weekend, oil tankers registered with Saudi Arabia and the UAE reported damage after mysterious acts of sabotage.

The sequence of events couldn’t be more worrisome as news leaked on May 13–the following Monday–that contingencies for 120,000 American troops arriving in the Gulf were under discussion. In the ensuing week, US diplomatic staff were ordered to evacuate the embassy in Baghdad and unsubstantiated claims began that Iraqi militias received missiles from Iran. Another variation of the same story involves alleged images showing “missiles” are being carried by dhows in the Persian Gulf.

If these assertions seem ominous it must be clarified that whatever is brewing between Washington, DC and Tehran is the latest development in a slow motion crisis. Since exiting the JCPOA agreement in May 2018–exactly a year ago–the Trump administration has inflicted ruinous sanctions on Iran and tried its best to kill its lucrative oil exports. The present strategy that unfolded this month, as explained by administration insiders and Republican politicians, is to deter Iranian military actions against US forces in the Middle East and retaliate if these come to pass.

Of course, whether or not catering to local Arab allies with arms deals comes from the same script is speculative. Indeed, the sales of Patriot batteries and missiles to Gulf states are in keeping with alliances that go back decades. The current need for air defenses like the Patriot makes sense for Bahrain and the UAE too. First, they’re the next to receive Patriots after sales to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were announced in late 2018. Second, with Iran’s immense collection of ballistic missiles, Patriot batteries are the surest sign the US guarantees Abu Dhabi and Manama are able to protect themselves in the worst possible conflict scenario in the Gulf. This is when Iran bombards US bases or critical infrastructure in either country. During Operation Desert Storm, however, Iraqi Scud missiles launched at Israel weren’t successfully eliminated by the ground-based Patriots sent by the US.

Iran’s own road mobile missiles like the Shahab-2 and 3 are improved variants of the Soviet vintage “Scud” and launching them at enemy countries involves shorter distances. Saudi Arabia’s own Patriot PAC-2 batteries were put to the test against unguided rockets from Yemen. While some interceptions were successful the Saudis remain at the mercy of further barrages. How well Patriot PAC-3’s perform versus large diameter rocket artillery (range=150-200 kilometers) or Fateh and Shahab missiles remains to be seen.

Bahrain in particular is on a multi-year binge on US-made kit. The potential sale of a $2.478 billion Patriot battery, complete with nine launch stations and 96 missiles (36 of them are Guidance Enhanced), follows just months since earlier deals for an F-16V squadron worth $1.12 billion and an additional 12 Viper helicopter gunships. This is on top of Bahrain receiving 110 ATACMS short-range ballistic missiles for its HIMARS mobile launchers. Should each of these orders be fulfilled, the cumulative effect is Bahrain’s conventional military graduates from its token force status. The Emirates, on the other hand, is recognized for its superb military whose equipment is tried and tested in active war zones. The sale of 452 PAC-3 missiles adds to its robust air defenses that includes nine THAAD launchers and short-range weapon systems like the Russian-made Pantsir-S1.

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