The Middle East Air Defense alliance takes flight

MILITARY AFFAIRS: How the regional coalition to protect the skies against Iranian drones and missiles got off the ground.

 THEN-COMMANDER of the US European Command General Curtis M. Scaparrotti tours the Arrow Missile Defense System headquarters in Palmahim, accompanied by then-IDF chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot and then-Air Defense commander Brig. Gen. Zvika Haimovitch (right), in 2017.  (photo credit: Matty Stern/US Embassy of Tel Aviv)
THEN-COMMANDER of the US European Command General Curtis M. Scaparrotti tours the Arrow Missile Defense System headquarters in Palmahim, accompanied by then-IDF chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot and then-Air Defense commander Brig. Gen. Zvika Haimovitch (right), in 2017.
(photo credit: Matty Stern/US Embassy of Tel Aviv)

The idea of a Middle East Air Defense has been the talk of the town in recent weeks, leading up to US President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The “MEAD,” as Defense Minister Benny Gantz calls it, has already been operational and has successfully intercepted aerial threats.

The alliance has reportedly brought together Israel and Arab states in the Middle East around a shared table in order to defend their countries from Iran and its proxies, which have increased their attacks, some of them deadly, in recent years.

Not a new idea

Israel normalized ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan with the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, but the idea of such a pact began five years earlier.

It was under Brig.-Gen. Zvika Haimovich’s watch as head of the IDF’s Air Defense Array that Israel first started talking about a regional air defense to protect it from threats like Iranian drones and missiles.

 A US DEPARTMENT of Defense exhibit shows an Iranian Shahed-123 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), at a military base in Washington, in 2018. (credit: AL DRAGO/REUTERS) A US DEPARTMENT of Defense exhibit shows an Iranian Shahed-123 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), at a military base in Washington, in 2018. (credit: AL DRAGO/REUTERS)

“It’s not a new idea. We are talking about an idea that started in 2015 under [then-chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi] Eisenkot. It was the first time that regional defense became part of our strategy,” Haimovich told The Jerusalem Post.

Haimovich served as the commander of the Air Defense Array from 2015 to 2018, and it was under his tenure that the David’s Sling and Arrow-3 missile defense systems became operational.

According to him, the first step in the idea was to bring into the plan the United States and its assets in the region in countries far from Israel, “to provide a big umbrella to supply early warning to Israel. That was the main idea.

“I remember the road show we did with EUCOM and CENTCOM and they agreed to the idea. From that, regional defense became a reality.”

“I remember the road show we did with EUCOM and CENTCOM and they agreed to the idea. From that, regional defense became a reality.”

Brig.-Gen. Zvika Haimovich

Following the normalization accords of 2020, the Abraham Accords countries were added to that idea, “to bring one operational net that would connect all the sensors and assets to build one synchronized picture that each country could use to protect themselves,” Haimovich explained.

The idea was to build a coalition of countries that share the same interests and threats, such as Iran and its proxies. It would provide early warning for air and ballistic threats and fill the gap that some countries face due to distance.

“Israel is not alone in this,” he said. “Once you share the same interests and threats, this immediately serves your national strategy principles and objectives.”

Following his time in Israel, Biden will fly directly to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he will meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and take part in a meeting with regional Mideast leaders as part of the GCC+3 summit.

Haimovich said that the visit not only promotes a more formal relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia, but it sends a “clear message” to the region and the world “that we are building a great coalition between those who share interests. Together we are much stronger than separately.”

For Israel’s defense establishment, the MEAD was expected to be a central part of Biden’s visit, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that he planned to update the president on the work being done.

“We will show [President Biden] the integrated force building we are doing with partners throughout the region against Iran,” he said during the graduation ceremony at the National Defense College on Monday evening.

Gantz added that Israel’s defense establishment will “have the task of developing this cooperation in the coming years as the main means of curbing Iranian aggression in the region.”

AHEAD OF Biden’s visit, Gantz on Monday spoke with the chief of the Bahraini military, Field Marshal Khalifa bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and the head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate, Abbas Kamel, to discuss “defense cooperation,” according to a release by his office.

In June Abdullah told CNBC that he would support the creation of a Middle Eastern alliance similar to that of NATO, and that there was a growing sense in the region that nations in the area are facing similar threats and need to work together.

“I would be one of the first people that would endorse a Middle East NATO,” he said. However, he noted, “the mission statement has to be very, very clear. Otherwise, it confuses everybody.”

Abdullah was later criticized for supporting the initiative, including by his foreign minister, Ayman Safadi. But just days later Gantz said MEAD has already thwarted threats and “will strengthen the cooperation between Israel and countries in the region.

“This program is already operative and has already enabled the successful interception of Iranian attempts to attack Israel and other countries,” he told the Knesset Foreign Affairs Defense Committee in June.

Two weeks before Gantz and Abdullah’s comments, members of the House and Senate introduced a bill calling on the Pentagon to present a strategy for an integrated air defense in the region.

“The secretary of defense shall seek to cooperate with allies and partners in the Middle East to identify an architecture and develop an acquisition approach for certain countries in the Middle East to implement an integrated air and missile defense capacity to protect the people, infrastructure and territory of such country from cruise and ballistic missiles, manned and unmanned aerial systems and rocket attacks from Iran and for other purposes,” the bill read.

The countries named in the bill included the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Egypt and “other such regional allies or partners.”

The campaign to thwart Iran’s regional plans is taking place across the Middle East, with a “regional alliance” of the US, Israel, the Gulf States (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait), Egypt and Jordan, as well as Qatar, Oman, Sudan and Morocco, Maj.-Gen. Eyal Zamir said in a recent paper.

Other than Jordan, not many Arab states have commented on MEAD.

According to a senior defense source, Iran and its proxies have launched more missile and UAV attacks against Gulf states than against Israel. As rocket and drone attacks by Iran have increased, there have been talks between Israel and several Gulf states to understand what is most relevant to counter the threats.

The countermeasures may include a regional alliance, an implementation of defense systems, or both. But a Middle East NATO, like that Jordan’s Abdullah referenced, may take some time.

The former head of US Central Command, Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, has said that Israel’s move to CENTCOM last year was a “rare opportunity” for an integrated air and missile defense alliance.

“You’d like to have a common operational picture that everyone can share so that everyone has immediate knowledge of threats, and can take actions to protect themselves and protect others,” McKenzie told The War Zone news site. “Nations are open to sharing intelligence, sharing air defense information, and I think it’s a big step forward.”

With regional countries all fielding sophisticated radar systems, McKenzie said that such an alliance wouldn’t see new radars “but, rather, practices, techniques and procedures that would allow you to share that information better.”

“We’re not at the first step. We’re further down than we’ve ever been,” he said.•