x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

UAE's mighty shield

Military planners are putting place a formidable array of the latest missile technology to protect the UAE from attack.

The United Arab Emirates has achieved an inordinate amount in a very short time. From desert sands a modern metropolis is emerging that will rank among the leading financial, cultural, medical and business centres in the world. It is natural to want to protect such gains to ensure they can be enjoyed by generations to come. But if history has anything to teach us, it is that the future is always unpredictable. While we have enjoyed an extended period of peace and prosperity, the region in which we live remains fragile: Iraq is rebuilding after years of devastation, Iran, with its nuclear ambitions, is in domestic turmoil following controversial elections, Israel and its relations with the Palestinian people remain an open sore and a power-greedy world observes our oil and gas reserves with a jealous eye.

Faced with such potentially threatening backdrops, the UAE's defence planners have not been idle. At the bidding of Sheikh Khalifa, President of the UAE, they are in the process of creating a mighty shield that will provide powerful protection to the Emirates from the vagaries of international politics. The proposal for this "deterrent defence" doctrine is ambitious, the cost huge, but the value of its ultimate goal is beyond price.

At its core the defensive shield provides a comprehensive air and missile defence system, a strong naval fleet and an overarching early warning system. Military strategists view sea and airborne attacks as the most threatening to the UAE, given its geographic location. In December the UAE signed two deals with US contractors worth more than US$4 billion (Dh15bn) for an advanced version of the Patriot anti-missile system. Delivery of the first batch will be in 2011.

One is for the Lockheed Martin Advanced Patriot Capability-3 (PAC-3) missile system, the latest in the Patriot programme. The missile is designed to intercept tactical ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and aircraft as far away as 45km. The PAC-3 is claimed to be the first missile designed with a "hit-to-kill technology". This means it hits the incoming target, rather than exploding close to it. According to a notification to the US Congress in December 2007, the UAE has requested 288 of them.

The second system is Raytheon's Patriot guidance enhanced missile system (GEM-T), an upgraded version of the PAC-2. This missile is designed to shoot down highly mobile tactical ballistic missiles with a range of less than 300km. These anti-missile deals are part of a US$9bn package to build a network of Patriot missiles, launchers, radars and control stations. The system will ultimately comprise nine Patriot fire units that include 10 phased-array radars and 37 launching stations.

These proposals have been put forward by the Pentagon's Defence Security Co-operation Agency for approval by the US Congress, a necessary stage in all major US arms sales. The UAE is planning to acquire yet more advanced anti-missile systems to tackle regional threats. In October 2007 the US Congress was notified of a request to sell the UAE the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD), for nearly US$7bn.

Talks are underway on the specifics of the THAAD system to be installed in the Emirates. This system is designed to destroy ballistic missiles while they are still in outer space and could be used against longer-range missiles, such as Iran's Shahab-3 which has an estimated range of between 1,350 and 1,600km. It is not clear how soon this deal will be signed, but it is understood that it has not yet passed the congressional hurdle.

These systems will gradually replace Raytheon's Hawk missiles installed in the UAE in 1987. The development of missile defence systems started during the 1950s and 1960s, the peak of the Cold War. Their purpose was to defend cities against a limited attack by intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads. Research was limited by the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty between the US and Soviet Union and it was not until the launch in 1983 of former president Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) - dubbed Star Wars - that real strides were made.

Anti-missile systems are classified in different ways. Some attack a missile in its boost stage - below an altitude of 300 miles (480km). Others aim to take out the missile in midcourse, when it stops thrusting and begins gliding on the edge of space. The third type tries to destroy the missile in its terminal phase, as it re-enters the atmosphere. The systems acquired by the UAE fall under the terminal phase defence. Although the THAAD missile falls into this category, it can also shoot down an incoming missile in space.

When a full system is installed the UAE military will have the capability to target the full range of ballistic missiles with the exception of the intercontinental missile. Anti-missile systems are not foolproof, however, and are prone to technical glitches. The Patriot was developed in the late 1970s as an anti-aircraft defence system and was used during the 1991 Gulf war to defend against Iraqi Scud missiles, but its performance was relatively poor with success ratios ranging from 40 to 70 per cent.

Things have improved, but questions continue to be raised as to the effectiveness of the technology against the highly manoeuvrable, low-altitude cruise missile. Test records from Lockheed Martin show the PAC-3 system succeeded five times between 2000 and 2007 in intercepting cruise missiles Billed as the "world's most advanced, capable and lethal theatre air defence missile currently fielded", the PAC-3 successfully intercepted 21 of 24 targets of all kinds between 1999 and 2008, according to test records.

Raytheon's GEM-T has also achieved positive results since 2005, successfully destroying a number of surrogate cruise missile targets and unmanned flying vehicles. While the results are impressive the tests were not conducted under battle conditions, when the number of incoming missiles would be unknown and countermeasures and decoys would be used. Dr François Gere, the president of the French Institute for Strategic Analysis, claims that even though the system is not yet fully effective, it is a worthwhile investment.

"There will never be 100 per cent protection, 100 per cent interception," he said. "It doesn't exist in the real world and it will never exist. Everyone knows that." He argued that if the shield achieved an interception rate of 80 per cent, "which is quite a good rate", it would decrease the amount of expected damage. But to achieve this effectiveness, Dr Gere suggested, a multilayered defence system should be in place.

"You need to pay attention to have the right balance between short-term threats and long-term threats," he said. "If you buy too many of let's say PAC-3 or THAAD, you buy very high technology, expensive technology which by itself cannot help you against short-term risks and the use of relatively crude missiles, for instance the Iranian Zalzal with a range of 300km, which can create a lot of damage."

To counter such low-altitude missiles, the UAE has bought the GEM-T segment of the Patriot missiles, which could be more effective against cruise missiles. But the real challenge is the scale of the attack. Dr Bernd Kubbing of the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt poses the question how would such an anti-missile system shield an oil facility, for instance, against 20 or 50 missiles. He suspects such a system would not be that effective in protecting major population centres such as Abu Dhabi and Dubai unless a very significant number of missiles were deployed

"I wouldn't exclude that they can protect facilities, they're designed to protect facilities and troops against weapons of mass destruction," he said. "What they cannot do ... is protect population centres." Deploying the multilayered system will give the UAE the capability to intercept tactical to long-range missiles. These systems can be easily deployed to protect strategic locations such as oil facilities as well as troops. As yet, the UAE does not face a threat from intercontinental missiles.

The missile defence system comes, by default, with a powerful early warning system, but the armed forces have plans to acquire a number of tactical and long-range radars, including a fleet of airborne early warning stations that would feed data to forces in combat. This ensures troops have enough time to track and destroy incoming missiles. Tomorrow, a four-day conference of defence experts and military commanders from around the world meets at Abu Dhabi's Armed Forces Officers Club where the UAE's progress in this field will be discussed.

The Air and Missile Defence Summit, organised by IQPC, the global event organiser, will include speakers such as Rear Admiral Scott Sanders, the vice commander of the US Naval Forces Central Command. Whatever conclusions are reached, it is clear that the UAE's military strategists have sought some of the best available technologies to provide a defence umbrella under which we can all shelter. It may be a mighty shield, but the UAE has many mighty achievements to protect.

mhabboush@thenational.ae