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Fight Their Own Wars? The Gulf States Are Above It

Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security, education and food for Bloomberg View. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper's letters editor.
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U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter thinks America's Arab allies have their heads in the clouds. He makes a good point: The monarchies of the Persian Gulf are going to have to get grounded if they hope to effectively counter Iran, Islamic State and other threats in the region.

“If you look at where the Iranians are able to wield influence, they are in the game, on the ground,” Carter told the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg. "There is a sense that some of the Gulf states are up there at 30,000 feet.”  

Carter continued: “The reason they lack influence, and feel they lack influence in circumstances like Iraq and Syria, with [Islamic State], is that they have weighted having high-end air-force fighter jets and so forth over the hard business of training and disciplining ground forces and special-operations forces.”

The numbers bear out Carter's case. Defense spending among the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council has risen by 71 percent since 2010, and overwhelmingly this spending has gone into building state-of-the-art air forces.

The results of this binge are easy to see, especially when compared to more traditional, balanced militaries such as those of Egypt, Iran and Jordan.

Why does any of this matter? The limits of air power have never been more apparent than in the last 15 years, from U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq to the current struggle against Islamic State. Even one supposed success -- support for Libyan rebels who overthrew Muammar Qaddafi -- proved fleeting after the absence of any NATO or Gulf ground troops led to widespread looting of the regime's weaponry, fueling a civil war.

Now the Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, are trying to push back Houthi forces in Yemen by airpower alone, and succeeding mostly in killing hundreds of innocent civilians. 

There are several reasonable explanations for the petro-states' insistence on building up their air forces, mostly having to do with their unique societies. One is simply that, as in everything from skyscrapers to art museums, the Gulf states have a yen for the best, shiniest, most expensive objects. Few killing devices in the history of warfare are sexier, or more fit for an Arab prince, than an F-16.

Second, these countries have relatively tiny populations: Combined, they have about 25 million citizens, fewer than Iraq and about a third of Iran's population. Airpower provides distinct asymmetric advantages for the outnumbered -- one person can bring a greater amount of offensive power to bear over a greater distance in a plane than in a tank or with a rifle. But when it comes to holding territory or tracking down a hidden, entrenched enemy, that advantage wanes.

In addition, small countries tend to have a lower tolerance for casualties, and flying a fighter jet is far safer than taking part in a special forces raid or tank battle. One suspects it wouldn't take many deaths at the front in Yemen and Syria to dampen Riyadh's and Doha's enthusiasm for military intervention.  

Last, as Egypt's King Farouq discovered in 1952 and Iraq's King Faisal in 1958, standing armies are good at overthrowing monarchies. The gulf leaders are understandably wary of internal threats after the Arab Spring: Oman, which has only 25,000 troops in its army, has a 6,400-man "household guard" protecting the sultan.

In the end, even if the U.S. encouraged the Gulf states to spend less on planes and more on tanks and guns, none would be able to field a major land force because they are such small nations. Perhaps it would be more fruitful for Carter to urge the creation of a standing joint army for the Gulf Cooperation Council, a combined force capable of intervention against threats like Islamic State. This could be an actual deterrent to Iran.

Admittedly, it's been tough to get the monarchies to agree on even a shared missile defense -- in part because of longstanding distrust among the smaller states toward Saudi Arabia, which tends to dominate any mutual Gulf efforts. But a constellation of factors -- increasing fear of Islamic extremism, the quagmire in Yemen and concerns that the nuclear deal between Iran and the U.S. signals a softening of the American stance toward the Shiite republic -- could change priorities among the very rich yet risk-averse petro-states. After all, when those jet fighters land, they do so in the world's most dangerous neighborhood.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net