August 9, 2016

New Report Details Massive Disparity in Middle East Arms Race

An August 2016 report on Iran’s military capabilities in comparison with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) offers a straightforward take away: “the Arab countries are decisively winning this arms race.” The report, issued by the Center For Strategic & International Studies’ Anthony Cordesman, flies in the face of the all too common narrative that Iran is on the march to regional hegemony.

Cordesman details “three gaps” in Iran and GCC military capabilities: the military spending gap, the modernization gap, and the land/air/naval balance gaps. In every category, other than the sub-section of ground forces, it is revealed that the margin between the GCC states and Iran widened over the past four years.

Perhaps the most striking gap between Iran and the GCC states is with military spending. The GCC states’ $117 billion in annual military spending, compared to Iran’s $17 billion, is truly staggering. The report also references data from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), which highlights the striking gap in actual weapons acquired between the two. The modernization gap for actual new arms, as opposed to other military equipment, follows the same pattern as the military spending gap. From 2007-2014, Iran spent a total of $7 billion on new arms purchases while Saudi Arabia spent roughly $27 billion.

While Iran has historically held a dominant position with regards to land forces, the report found that a more detailed examination of the facts on the ground tell a quite different story. The land force manpower gap between Iran and the GCC has remained very wide according to the report, with Iran’s over 800,000 land forces outnumbering all GCC forces by a wide margin. However, the same does not hold with regard to land force equipment such as main battle tanks. The GCC states as of the 2016 report possess roughly 100 more tanks as well as more general ground force equipment such as armored infantry vehicles and armored personnel carriers. The report’s overall analysis as mentioned found that Iran’s Army is not structured for sustained maneuvers outside of Iran and into the GCC states.

The State Department’s recent approval for the sale of 130 Abrams battle tanks to Saudi Arabia, worth an estimated 1.5 billion dollars, further increases the GCC’s lead in the standard and modernized land forces domains.

With regard to the air force gap between Iran and the GCC states Cordesman found that “The Arab states have a decisive advantage in combat aircraft numbers and quality,” and that Iran’s surface to air systems and land based sensors are similarly limited in capability in comparison to GCC and complimentary U.S. systems. According to the report, Iran and Saudi Arabia possess a roughly equal amount of aircraft fighters, bringing the total number of GCC combat fighter jets to a few hundred more than Iran’s. However this number veils the larger modernization disparity between the two fleets according to the report, with the GCC states outnumbering Iran in “High Quality Fighters” by about 200.

The CSIS report is titled “The Changing Gulf Balance and the Iranian Threat,” however Cordesman tellingly opens the “naval balance” section with the following: “There really is no naval balance, [Iran’s naval capabilities are] just a naval component to joint naval-air-missile warfare.” Surface, submarine, and air-sea warfare, he says, is dominated by the U.S.’s naval and air presence, while Iran’s offensive capabilities are limited to low intensity attrition, random acts of mining, and raids.

In addition, the report examined Iran’s ability to close the Strait of Hormuz, an essential transit point for tankers leaving from the GCC states.  The report’s ultimate assessment pushed against the narrative that the Iranian navy is a serious threat to U.S. interests due to its ability to close the Strait of Hormuz. Cordesman found Iranian claims of being able to do so “[f]ar better for political leverage and intimidation than actual fighting.”

Much of the rhetoric we hear on Iran too often obstructs the real facts on the ground, which indicate that a highly one sided arms race is being played out in favor of the GCC states. Simply put, Iran is not capable of pursuing regional hegemony, and if the numbers are any indicator of future hegemonic aspirations, it is not spending like a future hegemon either.

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