WASHINGTON — The US and Saudi Arabia are planning to kick off their first-ever experimental counter-drone exercise in mid-March, Al-Monitor has learned.
The first “Red Sands” exercise will involve US and Saudi-owned air defense systems, but will likely not include other regional militaries, according to four US military officials briefed on the matter.
American officials say they intend to include counterparts from additional Middle Eastern militaries in subsequent Red Sands events in the coming months, all of which are expected to be held in Saudi Arabia.
Why it matters: The defensive exercise series — the brainchild of the Central Command (CENTCOM) commander Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla — is the most significant step in the Pentagon's belated efforts to adapt to Iran’s rapid advances in drone warfare in recent years.
More than three years after guided Iranian missiles and drones slammed into Saudi Aramco oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurays, US defense officials openly acknowledge that reliance on conventional shows of force has failed to deter Iran’s attacks.
The Pentagon’s withdrawals of air defense systems from the Middle East in recent years amid tensions with Russia and China and a backlog of requests by regional governments to purchase similar US-made systems has led new leadership at US CENTCOM to pursue some inventive solutions.
Saudi Arabia was selected to host Red Sands in part because of the country’s vast expanses of open desert away from population centers, where the US and regional militaries can experiment with directed energy weapons for air defense purposes, one US military official told Al-Monitor.
Directed energy will not be fielded this month, but US Army officials will introduce to their Saudi counterparts to a new computer simulator developed last year by a Massachusetts National Guard soldier, Sgt. Mickey Reeve.
The simulator, tentatively named the Interim Platform Agnostic counter-UAS Training Tool (IMPACT), is designed to train personnel on responding to hostile drone attacks.
Making it count: Top brass at CENTCOM are counting on Red Sands to become the Middle East’s premier proving ground for emerging Western counter-drone and -missile technology as Biden administration officials aim to steer partners and allies in the region away from purchasing advanced military hardware from Beijing.
“We should not be surprised if regional partners continue to buy some Chinese gear,” CENTCOM’s Air Force chief Lt. Gen. Alex Grynkewich told reporters in Washington last month.
“I think that what Red Sands will enable them to do is have better visibility into the quality of Western, European and US gear in particular,” Grynkewich said in response to a question posed by Al-Monitor.
“It's a very hard problem, and we are not perfect at it, but we've got some pretty good things that are coming online that we can experiment with.”
Grynkewich also praised the Royal Saudi Armed Forces for developing new methods for tracking and bringing down Iranian drones launched by Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
“There's actually a lot we can learn from them,” the general said. “From a [tactics, techniques and procedures] perspective, I don't think that there's much that we could offer the Saudis back.”
It was not immediately clear why additional militaries aligned with the US weren't scheduled to take part in the inaugural event. One US official speaking on the condition of anonymity cited "capability" reasons, without elaborating, and suggested there was hesitancy among some officials in the region about being seen as part of the exercise.
Threat picture: The major conflicts that wracked the Middle East over the past two decades have subsided for now, but Iran gained significant footholds in power vacuums left by failed states in Yemen, Iraq and Syria by funding, arming and training local proxy militias for leverage over the US military and its regional partners.
US defense officials say Tehran continues to ship its missiles and drones to proxy groups, leading to concerns that the sheer number of Iranian projectiles could prove overwhelming to regional air defenses if open conflict were to break out with either Iran or its proxies.
What’s next: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrives in the Middle East on Sunday to follow up on the Biden administration’s efforts to convince Arab militaries to share intelligence and cooperate towards a regional air defense network to more effectively protect themselves from Iran’s aerial threats.
US defense officials say there is significant interest in the region, but concerns remain that progress is not keeping pace with Iran’s advances, especially now that Russia is poised to enhance Tehran’s weapons technology in return for support for the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine.
Western sanctions have thus far failed to choke off Iran’s supply chains needed to continue expanding its arsenal of conventional missiles and drones.
Know more: Austin will stop in Israel next week after a visit by top US general Mark Milley on Friday, as tensions rise with Iran over its nuclear enrichment.
Editors’ note: March 5, 2023. This first paragraph of this article was updated to clarify an editing error.