The strategic relationship between the United States and Gulf Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, has experienced its share of ups and downs in recent years. Despite the highs and lows, the foundation of U.S.-Arab relations rests on many decades of security cooperation and military assistance.
Even at the lowest point in the U.S.-Saudi political relationship, military cooperation continued through foreign military sales, combined exercises, exchanges, training, and contingency planning — all focused on countering increasing attacks from Iran. The latter has steadily improved its own ballistic missile accuracy, range, and inventory; developed new drone technologies; and exported these capabilities to proxies throughout the region.
Now U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) is in the initial stages of planning for a regional testing facility in Saudi Arabia to help respond to these risks. Drawing comparisons to the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, the Red Sands Integrated Experimentation Center will increase cooperation to counter two of the greatest threats emanating from Iran and its proxies — drone and missile attacks. It will also be a major element of CENTCOM commander Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla’s three-pronged strategic approach that emphasizes “People, Partnerships, and Innovation.”
CENTCOM’s plans signal an uptick in the U.S.-Saudi relationship and are significant for two reasons. First, the U.S. typically conducts comparable international armaments cooperation (IAC), which includes cooperative research, development, test, and evaluation (RDTE) activities, with only its closest and most sophisticated partners. Notable examples include the F-35 fifth-generation strike fighter program with the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Australia, Norway, Denmark, Canada, and, for a time, Turkey; missile defense system cooperation with Israel; as well as the U.S.-Japan cooperative development of the SM-3 IIA interceptor. Second, the scope and level of effort required to plan for, construct, staff, and operate a multinational test facility like Red Stands is enormous. To succeed, it will require buy-in from multiple U.S. departments, agencies, and services, as well as substantial backing from Saudi Arabia and other regional partners.
As CENTCOM and planners from other partner countries continue their work toward realizing this goal, they should concentrate on building consensus and support. They should also focus their planning on the following considerations to ensure a comprehensive and deliberate approach to an ambitious project that, if successful, will bolster cooperation, reinforce long-term relationships, and enhance regional deterrence and defense capacity.
One of the first steps in the military joint planning process is to produce a mission statement that outlines the task and purpose. From the limited information CENTCOM released, we know the intent of the Red Sands Integrated Experimentation Center will be to test new technologies aimed at better integrating air and missile defense systems to counter regional threats, especially intensifying drone attacks.
Many details are not yet clear, including which countries, services, or industry partners will lead and operate the facility, and who else might use it. There is no information available on whether both commercial and military systems will be cooperatively trialed at Red Sands, and no indication if the mission is limited to testing only, or if it will include RDTE and could lead to agreements for co-production of successful systems.
If planners model Red Sands’ mission closely after its namesake, the mission might look similar to the U.S. Army White Sands Missile Range’s mission to “[provide] America’s Armed Forces, allies, partners, and defense technology innovators with the world's premiere research, development, test, evaluation, experimentation, and training facilities to ensure our nation's defense readiness.”
Funding and financial considerations
Finding a funding source for the Red Sands project is one of the first considerations. Defense officials revealed that the U.S. will foot approximately 20% of the costs for the Red Sands facility but did not say if that estimate included construction, operations, maintenance, wages, salaries, or equipment costs — or over how many years the U.S. will cover those expenses. The planned location for the center, in Saudi Arabia, suggests that the Saudis will cover a significant portion of the monetary outlays, although other regional partners could potentially contribute.
While CENTCOM appears to be leading the planning for this effort, one of the U.S. military services will have to fund it. Again, if planners intend to model the concept after the U.S. Army’s White Sands, they will likely tap the Army as the lead service — and the bill payer — for this effort. In that case, the Army could fund the project through the International Cooperative Research and Development Program managed by Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Defense Exports and Cooperation, or DASA (DE&C). And some of the associated personnel costs could also be covered under the Army’s Engineer and Scientist Exchange Program (ESEP).
Manning and personnel support
Identifying and assigning staff with the right technical skills to man the Red Sands facility is another key issue. Much like funding, the U.S. committed to provide 20% of the manning, and those personnel will also come from service sourcing.
Moreover, planners will need to identify staffing requirements and determine which billets need assigned or temporary duty personnel — or if contractors or partner national staff will fill positions. Service personnel primarily from the acquisition, engineer, and air defense career fields will be in high demand. Missile Defense Agency staff might also support the center. Assuming the Army is the lead service, it could fill some positions for one to two years using the ESEP program.
Technology security and foreign disclosure
Before determining the scope of a cooperative testing program with international partners, U.S. planners must first identify the designated disclosure authority that will determine who has access to controlled unclassified and classified information. A second requirement is a guarantee from the foreign partner to protect sensitive information, with assurances usually codified in a bilateral security or program-specific agreement.
If plans for Red Sands include testing U.S. systems or disclosing sensitive information, then technology security and foreign disclosure processes will be critical, especially given plans for multinational participation. Additionally, China’s close cooperation and joint venture with Saudi Arabian companies to develop anti-drone solutions should give added emphasis to technology security procedures for cooperative counter-unmanned aerial system (C-UAS) and integrated air and missile defense (IAMD) system testing that occurs with Saudi Arabian government and industry officials.
The Red Sands Center will require armaments cooperation (AC) agreements in the form of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), Memorandum of Agreement (MOA), or Project Agreement (PA). These agreements outline objectives, scope, management, disclosure, cost sharing, duration, and termination considerations. For Army AC programs, DASA (DE&C) will determine what type of agreement is appropriate and lead the development, coordination, negotiation, and process to conclude the agreements. Additional accords, such as a General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), may be required to facilitate intelligence and information sharing, guarantee information security, and allow technology transfer needed to collaboratively research, test, and gather data on sensitive C-UAS and IAMD system capabilities and limitations.
The process to put bilateral agreements in place takes time, often years, and needs multi-agency coordination, cooperation, and support. If CENTCOM’s concept includes multilateral participation, the process to negotiate and conclude multiple agreements between several participating countries becomes even more complex and time consuming — which will impact the project’s lead time.
Defense officials did not provide a timeline but did say the location for the Red Sands center was not yet determined, and it was unlikely to begin operations before the end of the year. The scope, technical complexity, and political considerations mean this will not happen quickly. The time to secure funding, provide manning, execute construction, and put international agreements in place are all likely to stretch the timeline to achieve initial operational capability several years into the future.
All things considered, that does not mean the level of effort is not worth it. With CENTCOM transitioning to an economy of force theater, the region needs more opportunities for Middle East security cooperation that go beyond just arms sales. And long-term cooperative projects like the Red Sands Integrated Experimentation Center strengthen relationships, counter great power influence, and help our partners modernize and integrate their systems to defend against the most challenging regional threats.
Melissa Horvath recently retired from the U.S. Army as a Lieutenant Colonel after serving at CENTCOM from 2017 to 2021 as a Strategic Logistics Planner focusing on the Iran Problem Set. She was previously an Assistant Professor of Security Cooperation at the Defense Institute of Security Cooperation Studies (now Defense Security Cooperation University) and is currently a Lead Foreign Military Sales (FMS) Instructor and Curriculum Developer at ASRC Federal where she supports the Army’s Security Cooperation (SC) workforce education program. She is also a Non-Resident Scholar with MEI’s Defense and Security Program.
Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
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