The U.S. defense chief on Wednesday used a trip to the Persian Gulf to prod the region's countries to develop an integrated antimissile plan.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to attend a ministerial of the U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council Defense Dialogue. He encouraged the council to designate a quarterly meeting hosted by the Air Force component of U.S. Central Command -- the Air and Air Defense Chiefs Conference -- as "the GCC's primary military forum for regional air and missile defense policy," according to a transcript of his introductory remarks.
In subsequent comments to the press, Hagel said an agreement was reached between senior Pentagon officials and the six Arab GCC countries "to develop the specific proposals I outlined today," including the one on furthering missile defense discussions.
The Air and Air Defense Chiefs Conference meets several times a year and offers a forum for discussing antimissile matters at the operational level, according to a U.S. defense official who did not have authorization to be identified.
The official said the main accomplishment from the Jeddah meeting was that the conference would be reinvigorated after not having been convened for some time. "We did get agreement to get the [GCC countries' deputy ministers] to meet within the next six months [in Washington] and then restart the GCC ministerial as a regular forum for discussing these issues and moving forward on them."
The United States is encouraging the six Council nations -- Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- to agree to connect their individual missile defense assets in order to build a regional ballistic missile shield as a means of deterring attacks from Iran. Progress on this front has been slow, however, as the Arab Gulf countries are traditionally protective of their right to make independent defense decisions, choosing instead to rely on bilateral antimissile agreements struck with the United States.
Late last year, the Obama administration proposed developing a mechanism that would allow Washington to export defense systems to the Gulf Cooperation Council as a block. Thus far, the United States has sold weapons to Gulf countries on an individual basis.
Hagel touched on that idea again at Jeddah: "I am also suggesting that the GCC develop a Foreign Military Sales case to consult with U.S. trainers and technical experts. These experts could help advance regional missile defense priorities by accelerating the GCC's progress toward greater interoperability and more sophisticated multinational force development."
The secretary said it would be left up to members countries to "assemble this case and determine the appropriate member contributions."
Speaking in Washington on Wednesday, Frank Rose, deputy assistant secretary of State for space and defense policy, said that the U.S. willingness to designate the Gulf Cooperation Council as eligible for foreign military sales demonstrated "our ultimate commitment to see the Gulf become a stronger, more capable partner."
In a speech at the Capitol Hill Club, Rose noted that individual Gulf states have already shown their willingness to acquire U.S. antimissile systems. "These procurements demonstrate our GCC partners' determination to provide for their own defense, and when combined with our regional [ballistic missile defense] capabilities, represent a significant contribution to regional stability at a time when our own defense spending is under fiscal pressure."
The United Arab Emirates has signed a contract to purchase two U.S-manufactured Terminal High Altitude Area Defense systems, while both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have inked deals to enhance their existing Patriot batteries to handle the more-capable PAC-3 missile interceptor.
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