Argument

An Edge in the Desert

An Edge in the Desert

Weapons are pouring into the Middle East at an unprecedented rate. The Pentagon recently announced that it would sell six tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft to Israel for $1.3 billion, American hardware (including Apache helicopters) is being rushed to the Iraqi government to help in its battle against al Qaeda, and Washington has also restored military aid to Egypt after a brief hiatus. But Uncle Sam isn’t the only one delivering weapons to the region: Hezbollah has acquired parts of Russia’s supersonic Yakhont missiles, which can strike vessels more than 75 miles off the coast of Lebanon, and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad continues to receive significant stockpiles of weapons from both Moscow and Tehran.

These may appear to be piecemeal acquisitions, but these and other new weapons are actively changing the military dynamic in the Middle East.

Historically, Israel is believed to have a Qualitative Military Edge (QME), which Congress defines as the "ability to counter and defeat any credible conventional military threat from any individual state or possible coalition of states or from non-state actors." The United States has vowed to ensure Israel’s military edge — but the Iranian nuclear program, coupled with the civil wars and political upheaval that has recently wracked the region, have all upended the way defense planners traditionally handicap the Middle East.

Determining QME is easier said than done. As one Israeli official recently explained to me, it is more of an "inexact science," determined by the "intersection of capability and intent." 

Assessing capability is the easier part of this equation. Drawing from open sources, one can count the type and quantity of weapons a country possesses. But even this task can quickly become murky. Take Syria, for example, where the regime has been so busy attacking its own people that some of its arms stockpiles have dwindled, along with its capabilities — thereby necessitating the brutally makeshift "barrel bomb." This was also the case in Libya, which experienced its own internecine conflict in 2011. 

Amid the chaos of the so-called Arab Spring, intent is even harder to ascertain. If the international powers fail to achieve a final deal with Iran, is Israel prepared — or even capable — of destroying Tehran’s illicit nuclear program by itself? Now that Turkey has sided with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and even helps Iran evade sanctions, does that mean it would contemplate an armed conflict with the Israelis? 

War planners must also consider coalitions that would have been considered implausible a decade ago. Iran and Iraq, for example, were at each other’s throats during Saddam Hussein’s rule. Now with a Shiite-led government in Baghdad, they form a potentially powerful military bloc. If that were not strange enough, and if news reports are accurate, Tehran’s war planners must now consider the unlikely (and uneasy) alliance between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

To help make sense of this changing calculus, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies has spent the last six months compiling data for a new website that helps visitors to visualize the complex balance of power the Middle East. The site allows users to compare open-source data on armaments and capabilities by country or by coalition. It also helps visitors understand how better weapons or capabilities provide a qualitative edge to a handful of actors in the region.

And while the site cannot gauge intangible factors like the professionalism of armed forces or a country’s stomach for war, it has yielded some other interesting takeaways:

Non-state actors are more dangerous than ever.

Hezbollah and Hamas have a combined total of more than 60,000 missiles and rockets — three times more than they had after the 2006 Lebanon war. That’s probably more than Israel’s missile defense systems, such as Iron Dome, can handle, meaning that Israeli civilians will once again be at risk in the event of another war with Lebanon or Hamas.

Hezbollah and Hamas’s military advances can’t solely be understood by the quantity of their weapons. The quality of their equipment is also improving: Hezbollah has reportedly received advanced anti-ship missiles smuggled from Syria into Lebanon, while Hamas has gotten its hands on man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) smuggled in from Libya.

Drones are not just for America and Amazon.

Turkey has them, as do Israel, Morocco, the UAE, and Iran — and Tehran claims that its drones are reverse-engineered from a crashed American UAV. Baghdad is next: This spring, the Iraqi military will receive 10 ScanEagle drones, which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government claims it needs to counter a rising al Qaeda threat.

It is only a matter of time before other countries and non-state actors acquire this technology, which only a few years ago was reserved for elite Western militaries. Hezbollah has already started to explore the vulnerabilities that drones may expose in Israel’s security — and once armed drones enter the Middle East, it could change the military landscape entirely. 

Iraq is rearming.

Washington is investing heavily in its military ties with Baghdad, delivering an estimated $8 billion in weapons and related services since 2005. And the weapons sales have only increased in recent days: In addition to the 10 ScanEagle drones — which cost roughly $100,000 apiece — Baghdad received a shipment of 75 Hellfire missiles, which go for about $70,000 a pop.

These weapons are needed to help restore some semblance of order in the embattled Anbar province, which is now witnessing an al Qaeda resurgence. But even as Washington appears happy to sell Baghdad this advanced weaponry, there are signs the Iraqis are unprepared to use it on their own: According to the New York Times, the Hellfires will be "strapped beneath the wings of small Cessna turboprop planes, and fired at militant camps with the CIA secretly providing targeting assistance."

Such growing pains aside, it’s only a matter of time before the Iraqi military gets its act together. And that is now a concern for Washington’s lawmakers, who worry that the new Iraqi government has become an Iranian ally — if not its proxy. Even if Iraq is now fighting al Qaeda, many on Capitol Hill are deeply ambivalent about handing Baghdad its most potent hardware. Notably, lawmakers have hit the brakes on plans to deliver Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon fighters and Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopters to Baghdad.

Turkey has a burgeoning arms industry.

This summer, officials from the ruling A.K. Party complained that the U.S. arms industry was the root of all evil. It was responsible, they said, for starting a long list of wars or failing to end others — the implication was that America was willing to let the Middle East bleed if it meant its defense contractors could make a buck. But it’s now Ankara that’s building its very own military-industrial complex: Our research shows that Turkey’s defense industry — while still modest when compared to Washington’s — is growing at an impressive clip.

The Turks used to rely on Western-built equipment, but are now opting for domestically developed battle tanks, drones, and attack helicopters. They are also modernizing what they purchase, such as German-built Leopard tanks. Moreover, they are contributing to the production of the F-35 jet, an aircraft both Ankara and Jerusalem are planning to use as their primary fighters in the future. 

Saudi Arabia is on a shopping spree.

The Saudis are opening their checkbooks for high-end Western military equipment. The Saudi defense budget, the seventh largest in the world, has increased by 111 percent between 2003 and 2012. The build-up is designed to deter new threats originating out of Iran — not Israel, for a change. 

And Riyadh’s buying spree doesn’t show any signs of trailing off in the years ahead — particularly when it comes to air power. The Saudis are now waiting on orders for the first-rate Typhoon and F-15 fighters from Britain and the United States, and they are modernizing their existing F-15 and Tornado fleet.

The Israeli Air Force, by contrast, relies on F-15 and F-16 fighters that are more than a decade old, even with some spiffy modifications. In other words, for Israel, its vaunted qualitative edge in the air may now be diminishing.

There is a huge amount of data to comb through, which means that our conclusions come with a good number of caveats. But the message is clear: The balance of power in the Middle East is getting increasingly difficult to determine, and the changes rocking the region will not make it easier any time soon.