The U.S., Israel, and Their Arab Partners Should Work Together to Create the Next Generation of Defensive Weapons

January 18, 2021 | Michael Knights
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Last month, Jerusalem and Washington announced the successful testing of jointly developed, sophisticated systems for knocking incoming rockets and missiles out of the air. This technology, writes Michael Knights, is not only of strategic importance to both countries, but can be of use to the Gulf states, which also are under the growing threat of Iranian missile attacks. Further improvements are necessary, however, and the Abraham Accords may be the best tool for advancing them:

On December 15, Moshe Patel, the head of the Israel Missile Defense Organization, publicly signaled that his agency was interested in working with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, building on the existing U.S.-Israeli cooperation in the missile-defense sector. These states share an obvious community of interest: all of them are threatened by Iran’s fast-developing missile, rocket, and drone forces.

Just as Washington drew allies together in the Manhattan Project to develop atomic weapons in 1942-1946, it should focus a similar collective effort on countering [short- and medium-range] ballistic missiles, rockets, and drones—first in the Middle East, but with obvious applicability to great power competition against China, North Korea, and Russia. The urgent need for greater defensive capability was demonstrated in Baghdad on December 20, when the U.S. embassy was targeted with 21 rockets, the largest salvo against an American facility since 2010.

The current cost of exchange between Iran and its enemies is unsustainable—today’s most capable U.S. and Israeli interceptor systems, the Patriot and David’s Sling, cost around $2-4 million per shot, while the price of each Iranian missile, rocket, or drone is typically tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars at most. To make matters worse, Tehran’s threat network now poses a multidirectional challenge to U.S. bases and partners, with launches potentially emanating from Iran, Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and even ships or submarines. The safety of civilian air traffic is also increasingly at risk, as Iran’s accidental January 2020 shootdown of a Ukrainian airliner showed.

If missile defense does not become cheaper, safer, and more effective, then the United States and its regional partners may soon lose the ability to put up a meaningful defense against Iran—let alone broader global threats from China, North Korea, and Russia. . . . The solution is to pool resources—starting in the Middle East, which faces the most immediate missile threat.

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