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An Analysis of the US Sale of the Patriot Missile Defence System to Saudi Arabia

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  • December 10, 2014

    In October 2014 it was reported that the United States is planning to sell Patriot missile batteries worth $1.74 billion to Saudi Arabia. In order to acquire advanced air and missile defence capabilities and “help replenish” its obsolete Patriot systems (PAC-2), the Saudi government had requested for the Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3). However, apart from providing the Saudis with an upgraded missile defence system, this deal is likely to be conducive for both the United States and Saudi Arabia in other ways as well.

    The United States stands to benefit from the deal in a number of ways. Off late, Saudi Arabia has not been satisfied with US policy towards Syria and Iran. It was also disappointed with the United States for not responding in a manner the Saudis desired towards the movements against the rulers of Egypt and Tunisia. Hence, firstly, this deal could improve the frayed relationship between Washington and Riyadh. As stated by the Defence Security Cooperation Agency, it “will contribute to foreign policy and national security of the United States.” Such a strengthening of the alliance would also prove conducive for the United States in the present scenario when it is busy fighting the Islamic State (IS) and is tacitly cooperating with Iran in this regard. In this context, the sale of PAC-3 to Saudi Arabia could foster a “new equilibrium between Iran and Saudi Arabia.”

    Secondly, this deal would enable the US to enhance the interoperability of the Saudi missile defence system with other missile defence systems in the region. In May 2014, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel had encouraged all the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries to “connect their missile defence assets” in order to build a regional ballistic missile defence shield. At present, Kuwait and the UAE are the other Gulf States possessing the PAC-3 system. With Saudis slated to acquire the same, interoperability between these national systems in the region can be bolstered. It has also been reported that the PAC-3 could work together with the Terminal High Altitude Air Defence (THAAD) system already possessed by UAE. Other Gulf states may also acquire the THAAD in the coming years.

    Thirdly, there is little doubt that Washington is keen on strengthening its position not just in Euro-Atlantic and Asia Pacific regions but also in the Middle East. This deal could enable the United States to establish a firm ground in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is already believed to be under the nuclear umbrella of the United States, although reports that it was looking to acquire nuclear weapons capability from Pakistan created a flutter in the year 2013. As noted by DB Des Roches, an associate professor at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, the Patriot and THAAD systems would advance broader US security interests in the region by reassuring Saudi Arabia of its informal security commitment.

    For its part, Riyadh too stands to benefit from the deal. Firstly, it provides Saudis the scope for using a missile defence system which has already been battle-proven during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s own expertise in handling the older version of the Patriot system, the PAC-2, would make it easy for Riyadh to operate the new system. Thirdly, interoperability of missile defence systems among the GCC countries is not only desired by the United States but also by the GCC countries themselves including Saudi Arabia. Such interoperability would not only enhance Saudi chances of gathering intelligence through surveillance and reconnaissance but, since the systems would be integrated, there would be lesser burden on command and control of the missile defence system.

    Thirdly, there is little doubt that Iranian ballistic missiles are the key factor driving Saudi Arabia’s acquisition of missile defence systems. Saudi Arabia fears that Iran’s nuclear programme would eventually result in the development of nuclear weapons and their mating with ballistic missiles. Hence, the renewed Saudi interest in a ballistic missile development program. The country has already acquired the Chinese DF-21 solid-fuelled ballistic missiles modified to carry only conventional warheads. These are in addition to the DF-3 liquid fuelled missiles, also believed to be conventionally armed. DF-21 missiles have improved accuracy and are more reliable than the DF-3s. However, deterrence, whether nuclear or conventional, is only strengthened when there is a perfect amalgamation of both offence and defence. Offensive missile systems coupled with missile defence systems would only strengthen Saudi Arabia’s deterrent capability against Iran, both by applying the strategy of ‘deterrence by punishment’ and ‘defence by denial.’

    There is indeed no doubt that the PAC-3 missile defence deal is a win-win package for both the United States and Saudi Arabia in terms of both their bilateral relations and the enhancement of regional security.

    The author is Associate Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India

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