WASHINGTON - A US-supplied missile shield to protect Gulf nations against Iranian attacks will take years to complete, requiring a step-up in regional trust, more US sales of sensitive weapons, and intensive US training to avoid mishaps in the volatile region.
A renewed joint commitment to build the regional defence system was one of the few firm outcomes of Thursday's Camp David summit between President Barack Obama and Gulf allies, which were seeking fresh US defence pledges ahead of a possible nuclear deal they fear will empower arch-rival Iran.
Past efforts have stalled due to tension and mistrust within the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) but US and Gulf officials say the time is now ripe to push ahead as Arab nations mount more joint military missions.
A joint statement following the summit said that the GCC states were committed to developing a ballistic missile defence capability, including an early warning system, with US technical help. Washington pledged to fast-track arms transfers to the GCC states and to send a team to the region in the coming weeks to discuss the details.
The Gulf nations fear that the sanctions relief that would accompany a nuclear deal with Tehran due by June 30 could revive Iran's economy and enable it to acquire more accurate and reliable missiles.
An integrated defence system would allow Gulf countries to better repel an Iranian attack, stitching together their radars and interceptors to counter a range of different missiles.
The system would use US early-warning satellites and a mix of US and Gulf radars to detect the launch of an enemy missile and fire a ground- or sea-based missile to destroy it far above the earth.
CLOSER SHARING NEEDED
Lockheed Martin Corp, Raytheon Co. and Northrop Grumman Corp would be key contenders to build a central command-and-control system for the shield since they already do similar work for the US military and key allies.
The biggest challenge to making the shield work would be securing a broad agreement on the rules for dealing with any threats, said Anthony Cordesman, a senior analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"You have to work out the entire engagement structure before the first missile is ever launched," Cordesman said.
Getting to that point will require unprecedented agreements between the US military and the GCC, and among the often rancorous Gulf allies, to share sensitive data to avoid the risk of a friendly aircraft being shot down by mistake, experts said.
Intensive US-led training would also be vital to minimise the risk of mishaps, US officials say.