The head of the U.S. Air Force’s Middle East command says there is enthusiasm for regional defense partnerships, even after U.S. President Joe Biden’s regional air-defense alliance proposal ran up against Gulf opposition.

“While some sort of a regional alliance faced—we’ll say a cool reception—what did not face a cool reception is the idea that we could partner together in the region in order to gain better awareness of threats from the air or from the atmosphere, so air and missile threats that might come at us,” Lt. Gen. Alexus G. Grynkewich, Commander, Ninth Air Force and the Combined Forces Air Component Commander for U.S. Central Command (more commonly known as AFCENT) told JNS.

Ahead of and during Biden’s July trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia, the administration floated the idea of a Middle East air-defense alliance that would give participants more insight into potential aerial threats, including ballistic missiles and drones. Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz publicly proclaimed the Jewish state’s participation in the project.

Grynkewich said in a briefing with reporters that Middle East leaders haven’t warmed to the concept of a NATO-style alliance of states but support a looser partnership to piece together a clearer picture of air and missile threats across borders. Experts cited trust issues, along with problems of interoperability between various missile-defense systems.

Grynkewich says AFCENT and its partners are looking at how they can “stitch together the sensors that we have in the region so that we can account for the 360-degree nature of the current threat today.” The major threat is the ballistic missiles and small armed drones used to attack and spy on U.S. forces and allies, many of them launched by Iran and its proxies.

“The issue with the ballistic missile threat is that it doesn’t just emanate from Iran proper, but there are ballistic missiles that have been sighted with militant groups in Iraq, there’s ballistic missiles in Syria; the Houthis down in Yemen have ballistic missiles. So, a threat to one of our partner nations or to U.S. forces and coalition forces in the region can really come from any direction,” said Grynkewich, claiming the same is true about the unmanned aerial vehicle threat.

He said none of the nations in the region have the ability to protect themselves from all angles, but a partnership that incorporates more information-sharing while allowing nations skittish about a NATO-style alliance to still make their own sovereign defense decisions could work. “None of us have the resources to fully fill up that picture, but if we work together, we can stitch together the sensors that all of us have, and there’s considerable capability, and build a much broader awareness that will cover most of that 360 degrees of access for most of the country,” he told JNS.

‘How do we share intelligence’

Separately, Grynkewich contended that a gap of over a week in between the Aug. 15 attacks against American forces at the al-Tanf base by Iran-backed Syrian groups and the U.S. retaliatory airstrikes in Deir ez-Zor on Aug. 23 were unrelated to ongoing nuclear accord negotiations between Washington and Tehran. The Aug. 15 attack saw drones allegedly launched by Iranian-backed militias target the al-Tanf garrison used by American forces.

“We’re going to defend our forces no matter when they’re attacked or where they’re attacked.  We do so at the time and place of our choosing, and there is no connection to the Vienna talks,” said Grynkewich. “When we think about the defense of our forces, that’s an inviolable principle and we entirely compartmentalize that from other things that might be going on politically.”

He also disavowed any notion that the U.S. strike on Aug. 23 was related to Israeli attacks on Syrian targets linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps at around the same time.

“We, of course, maintain a tight relationship with all of our partners in the region. The actions that CENTCOM (U.S. Central Command) and AFCENT took for self-defense are entirely disconnected from any other actors, whether it be Israelis or anyone else, and again, purely based on self-defense,” said Grynkewich.

He noted the recent completion by U.S. Central Command Commander Gen. Erik Kurilla of an assessment of CENTCOM, coming 90 days after Kurilla took over his post. It is one Grynkewich describes as “partnerships over posture,” which portends a smaller American troop footprint in the Middle East.

“Certainly, there is a minimum amount of that which we aim to keep in the region that allows us to exercise, to experiment, innovate with our partners here,” said Grynkewich. “But the other big thing that we’re looking at is how do we share information, how do we share intelligence, how do we gain a common understanding with each other?”

 
JNS

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