US military plans counter-drone experiment in Saudi Arabia

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Despite the uproar on Capitol Hill and scant public criticism from the White House, the dispute between the Biden administration and Saudi Arabia has so far not prevented regular military coordination with Riyadh, according to US officials.

One of US Central Command’s top priorities – convincing Middle Eastern states to assemble their air and missile defense networks for collective protection against Iran – remains fully on the table, two officials told Al-Monitor. US military close to the talks.

To that end, CENTCOM Commander General Michael “Erik” Kurilla and his staff have been discussing with their regional counterparts in recent months a proposal to establish a new training site in Saudi Arabia to test new and existing counter drone technologies.

“Think of it as a firing range for air and missile defenses,” the U.S. Army brigadier said. Gen. John Cogbill, the command’s deputy director of operations, told Al-Monitor in an exclusive interview at CENTCOM headquarters. “You can put [a system] at its own pace, get that feedback and test its limits.

US officials say the site, tentatively dubbed the Red Sands Integrated Experiment Center (a nod to the White Sands Missile Range, the US military’s first proving ground in New Mexico), would play a key role in the Biden administration’s goal of fostering trust and collaboration. between the Arab and possibly Israeli military on collective defense against Iran.

The Islamic Republic is believed to have amassed the largest stockpile of armed drones, cruise and ballistic missiles in the region and has been accused of passing the technology to proxy militias in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. Iran and regional clients have used these weapons to attack Iran’s neighbors.

“No country in the region has enough air and missile defenses to protect against attack from any direction,” Cogbill told Al-Monitor. “It must be an integrated plan, with overlapping sectors of fire.”

“And that’s why we’re quietly building this regional security construct to involve as many nations as possible, first engaging them bilaterally and then testing their willingness to work multilaterally with other countries where they don’t. might not have been willing to work. [together] before,” he said.

The concept is still in its infancy, but military officials say it was well received when General Kurilla presented it to regional defense chiefs in August.

A location for Red Sands has yet to be determined, but candidates include one of several existing military installations in Saudi Arabia. Precise funding also needs to be defined and will likely involve some degree of US support, though not necessarily 20% as previously reported, a defense official told Al-Monitor.

“You’re not talking about a terribly expensive business. These are capabilities that we have in the region right now, it’s [about] move them,” the defense official said. “You are talking about something that already exists.”

A representative of the kingdom’s embassy in Washington did not respond to Al-Monitor’s request for comment.

As previously reported by NBC, one of the benefits of placing the Red Sands test site in Saudi Arabia is that the United States and its partners can test electronic warfare capabilities away from civilian centers. Analysts say a greater distance from the Iranian and Yemeni border is also preferable, as it increases the response time to incoming projectiles.

While not the explicit goal of Red Sands, closer collaboration with Gulf countries could also help give the United States an advantage in the region’s drone market, where Chinese technology has emerged from two sides of the conflict between Iran and its neighbours.

CENTCOM’s broader push toward air defense integration in the Middle East presents itself as a sort of compensation for Washington’s decision to withdraw some of its own missile defenses and Patriot batteries in the Gulf region in recent years for longer-term confrontation with Russia and China.

The proliferation of advanced Iranian drone and missile technology has undermined total U.S. air superiority in the region for the first time in the world since the Korean War, former CENTCOM commander Gen. Kenneth says “Frank” McKenzie, to members of Congress last year.

But the JCPOA’s stalled negotiations in Vienna over Iran’s nuclear program address neither Tehran’s support for proxy forces nor its conventional weapons programs, leaving the Biden administration to seek to contain projectile threats through more local means. .

The United States has sought to encourage air and missile defense coordination in the region for years, but the 2019 attacks on Saudi Aramco facilities and drone attacks on Abu Dhabi earlier this year underscored the emergency for Washington planners.

In May 2021, the Israeli Air Force sent F-35s to shoot down a Iranian drone over Jordan before fighter jets from Amman could take off, a former regional official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.

The incident was seen at the time as an example of more sophisticated logging collaboration in the region. Jordan already uses Israeli early warning systems, the source added.

American forces have qualified extensively with their Saudi counterparts on counter-drone operations in recent years, mostly from Prince Sultan Air Base southeast of Riyadh.

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