The tension between the United States and Iran has recently escalated in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, development of advanced land-based and naval missile technology, and more aggressive maritime malfeasance continues to threaten regional stability.
On July 5, 2023, Iran’ Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) attempted to seize two commercial tankers in the Gulf of Oman, which connects the Arabian Sea with the Strait of Hormuz. In its first attempt, the IRGCN attempted to seize the oil tanker TRF Moss, which Marshall Island flagged around 1 a.m. local time. Around three hours later, another Iranian Navy vessel attempted to make Richmond Voyager, under the Bahamas flag, stop. Richmond Voyager was more than 20 miles off the coast of Muscat, the capital of Oman, and was in international waters when the Iranian Navy approached it. On both occasions, USS McFaul (DDG-74 a) from the 5th Fleet, and surveillance assets including an MQ-9 Reaper and Navy P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft of the US 5th Fleet responded successfully and prevented the attempted seizures.
Iran’s combative, hostile, and warlike behavior towards American and regional partners has increased drastically. Iran’s naval missile capabilities are becoming more threatening to the United States and GCC partners with the introduction of a new long-range cruise missile, the Qadr-474, which has a stated capability to hit targets over 2,000 kilometers away. Alireza Tangsiri, the IRGC Navy Commander, stated that the Soleimani Class corvette has been armed with various types of missiles with ranges of 200, 300, 750 and 2,000 kilometers. With the Soleimani Class functioning as one of the platforms that could generate offensive strikes, the IRGC Navy has developed a new class of small air defense boats called Zulfiqar Class, with a SAM armed with short range surface to air Nawab missiles with a range of 15 kilometers. Recently, the addition of Abu-Mahdi missiles with a range of 1,000 kilometers which, according to Alireza Tangsiri, the IRGC Navy Commander, “can be fired either from a vessel or a coastal launch pad, hunt multiple targets and hit the target from various directions,” has provided the Iranian navy greater operational flexibility. The prospect of arming Iranian vessels with Damavand-2, an apparent “hypersonic” missile is also likely to add more complications to American and partner defensive operations if its stated capabilities prove to be accurate.
The Strait of Hormuz is nearly 180 kilometers (97 nautical miles) in length and only 39 kilometers (21 nautical miles) wide at its narrowest point comprising waterways with two major lanes of passage, each of which is only two km wide. With 90 percent of oil exported from the Arabian Gulf, and about 20 to 30 percent of the world’s total supply passing through Hormuz, this sea passage is considered as “the world’s most important oil artery”. On the North coast of the Strait of Hormuz lies Iran whereas on the south coast lies the Musandam peninsula, shared by the United Arab of Emirates and the Musandam Governorate, an exclave of Oman.
In order to stabilize the region, the United States in partnership with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and bilateral partnerships with UAE, Bahrain, and Qatar has deployed three significant forward operating bases. The Al Dhafra Air Base (ADAB) has supported US Air Force Central (USAFCENT) operations since August 1990 and hosted the US Air Force’s 380th Air Expeditionary Wing (380 AEW) since its establishment on January 25, 2002 . The Al Udeid Air Base has become home to the US Air Force Central Command, the combined Air and Space Operation Center and the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing (379 AEW) since 2003. Naval Support Activity (NSA) Bahrain has hosted the US Naval Forces Central Command and the US 5th Fleet Headquarters since May, 1995. The USCENTCOM has been located at Al Al Udeid Air Base since transition from As Sayliyah in Doha, Qatar in 2009. All these bases have US Patriot Missile Defense Systems protecting them.
The UAE with support of allies including the United States has heavily invested in Missile Defense systems. The UAE defense capabilities include PAC-3, THAAD, AN/TPY-2 Radar, the Israeli Barak-8 and South Korean Cheongung II KM-SAM missile defense system. The UAE has been the first country to operationally employ the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) which successfully intercepted a mid range ballistic missile targeting an oil facility near Abu Dhabi’s Al-Dhafra Air Base on Jan 17, 2022. According to the SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) arms trade database, UAE purchased its first Patriot PAC-3 ground-based launcher units from the United States in 2008 which were delivered from 2012 to 2014 as well as PAC-2 and PAC-3 missiles. Saudi Arabia, another important regional partner which houses more than 70,000 American citizens, has its own force of PAC-3 interceptors, and the more affordable advanced medium range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM) systems for its fleet of fighter aircraft. Qatar also hosts the largest US military base in the Middle East, Al Udeid Air Base, with around 8,000 American troops stationed there along with numerous airlift capabilities.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE comprise the core of the Gulf Cooperation Council. These three countries house robust, organic air and missile defense capabilities that are augmented by and integrated into the United States own air defense architecture. The 360 degree, full spectrum air and missile defense that protected The 2022 World Cup demonstrated the robust and comprehensive defensive capabilities of the United States and Qatar. The composition of the IAMD systems that protected the World Cup included multiple layers of sensors and shooters. From the AN/TPY-2 radar and THAAD interceptor batteries for high altitude air defense, to PAC-3 batteries for medium range engagement capability, to NASAM launchers to cover the lower echelon, shorter ranged intercept envelope, to airborne early warning systems and fighter aircraft. Comprehensive, layered air and missile defense is of the utmost importance to the gulf states of the Middle East, for their regional adversary – Iran – has a plethora of ranging capabilities and the proven intent to use them. It is now the responsibility of the United States to facilitate the deepening of IAMD capabilities not between the United States and her Gulf state partners, but between the Gulf states themselves.
Every GCC state is in possession of advanced missile technologies, they just have not been able to fully integrate their missile defense systems with each other. What is missing is an open architecture system and it starts with sharing collective sensor data of GCC states to be most efficient and effective against Iran.
Currently, air and missile systems of these Gulf states lack interoperability and integration across the entire spectrum of air and missile defense. The United States remains the regional conduit for all the GCC members’ missile defense systems for sharing early warning and warning information. The GCC member states require an open architecture in IAMD to stay ahead of the evolution of Iranian capabilities and generate an effective use of their interceptors and be cost-effective.
A common enemy will generate a common cause.
في الوحدة قوة ، وفي الانقسام ضعف
“There is strength in unity and in division there is weakness.”