analysisIsrael at War

A Middle East regional defense network: From vision to reality

The emergence of an air defense triad of Israel, the United States and Saudi Arabia is a major event.

An Arrow 3 interceptor being launched during a flight test in central Israel, Jan 18, 2022. Credit: Avichai Socher.
An Arrow 3 interceptor being launched during a flight test in central Israel, Jan 18, 2022. Credit: Avichai Socher.
Yair Ramati and Yaakov Lappin
Yair Ramati is a publishing expert at the MirYam Institute. In 2016, he concluded his four year service as director of IMDO, the Israeli government agency charged with the development, production and the delivery of missile defense systems including Iron Dome, David's Sling and Arrow. Yaakov Lappin is a publishing expert at the MirYam Institute. He provides insight and analysis for a number of media outlets, including JNS.org and the leading global military affairs magazine Jane's Defence Weekly.

As the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen continue to fire missiles and drones at Israel, a new air defense equation is taking shape—one that could provide a strong clue about how regional powers and the United States will cooperate going forward.

In recent days, Saudi Arabia reportedly intercepted a ballistic missile fired from Yemen at Israel. No official statements have been made, but the existing framework of U.S.-Israeli missile defense collaboration, built over three decades, paired with the sales of American Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems to Saudi Arabia, hint at de facto air defense interests that are becoming increasingly integrated.

There are three layers of interests at play after more than 35 years of joint Israeli-U.S. work.

Israeli-American research and development is foremost. That spans all air-defense systems—except Iron Dome, which remains solely within Israel’s domain of expertise, though it is jointly produced in Israel and the United States.

Seamless integration of defense capabilities (interceptors) across the Middle East, neutralizing threats common to Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States, form the second layer.

The technical term here is interoperability, developed during joint U.S.–Israeli air defense exercises in past years.

The third layer involves an intricate web of information sharing. American sensor data from various sources is fused and shared with Israel, and vice versa. This likely includes data from American spaceborne assets and radars stationed in places like Turkey, Qatar and Israel, creating a comprehensive defensive net.

Notably, a joint Israeli-American test conducted without Israeli radar in Alaska in 2019 successfully completed a trial interception with the Arrow 3 system, produced by Israel Aerospace Industries. The trial’s success underscores the system’s ability to function with other radars, verifying its flexibility.

It’s plausible that Saudi sensors, supplied by Washington, played a role in the recent reported interceptions. The presence of three key players—Israel, the United States and Saudi Arabia—in countering the Houthi threat, as it launches drones, cruise and ballistic missiles seems to be cementing these tripartite de facto interests.

The tactical relocation of the USS Carney—which is equipped with a Standard Missile air defense (Aegis SM-2) system—from the Mediterranean to the Suez Canal just hours before the first Houthi attack suggests an intelligence synchrony.

The defense architecture thus appears to be a joint interest with the United States at the apex, and Israel and Saudi Arabia at the base. With missile threats skirting the Saudi coastline, there’s a vested interest for the Saudis to intercept missiles for their own defense, as they cannot know if the latter will veer suddenly towards a target in Saudi Arabia— which the Houthis have targeted repeatedly.

This raises critical questions: Is this the blueprint for a pathway toward a united front against Iran and Iran-backed Shi’ite militias in western Iraq? Will there be a day when Israel and Saudi Arabia openly share intelligence on missile threats, shifting into active regional cooperation?

The strategic implications are profound. This isn’t merely about air defense. It’s about an intelligence and operational partnership that could redefine regional security dynamics.

This underscores not just a collective air defense mechanism, but also a broader collaboration that could effectively shift the military and strategic equilibrium in the Middle East.

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