America's uneasy Gulf allies adding to arsenals

By Brian Murphy

Associated Press

Published: Monday, July 30 2012 12:05 p.m. MDT

In this Monday Nov. 12, 2007 file photo, an Emarati visitor asks a U.S. military representative questions, as they stand next to an MQ-1 Predator spy plane, during the 2nd day of the 10th Dubai Airshow, at the Dubai airport, United Arab Emirates. In the past two months, the U.S. Defense Department has notified Congress of possible arms deals totaling more than $11.3 billion to Gulf states such as Qatar and Kuwait, which are seen as among the critical frontline partners in U.S. strategies to counter Iran and protect oil shipping lanes.

Kamran Jebreili-File, Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — While Iran's military loudly trumpets every new project or purported advance in hopes of rattling the U.S. and its Gulf Arab allies, the U.S. is quietly answering with an array of proposed arms sales across the region as part of a wider effort to counter Tehran.

In the past two months, the Defense Department has notified Congress of possible deals totaling more than $11.3 billion to Gulf states such as Qatar and Kuwait, which are seen as some of America's critical front-line partners in containing Iran and protecting oil shipping lanes.

The proposed sales — including Patriot missile batteries and Apache attack helicopters — are still modest compared with massive Gulf purchases such as Saudi Arabia's $60 billion package last year. That deal included more than 80 new F-15SA fighter jets, missiles, radar warning systems and other equipment.

But the recent flurry of expected sales from U.S. firms, approved by the Pentagon and outlined in notifications to Congress, underscores the growing emphasis among nervous Gulf states on seeking quick upgrades to existing firepower and defensive networks.

Gulf worries about possible military action against Iran have increased with diplomatic efforts making little headway in easing the showdown over Tehran's nuclear program, which the West and others fear could eventually develop atomic weapons. Iran says it only seeks reactors for energy and medical uses.

An Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, reported Sunday that National Security Adviser Tom Donilon briefed Israeli officials on possible U.S. attack plans if diplomacy and sanctions fail to pressure Tehran to scale back its nuclear enrichment program. A senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential talks, denied the Haaretz report.

The news reports reflect the uncertainties in the region with negotiations nearly stalled and Iran trying to push back against deepening sanctions on its vital oil exports.

"There was a bit of a breather in the region when (nuclear) talks resumed," said Bruno Tertrais, senior researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. "That is quickly fading."

In its place: a sense of military adjustments moving at a faster pace.

Washington plans to keep at least 13,500 troops in Kuwait — down slightly from the current 15,000 — but with an expanded mission as a potential rapid-reaction force for the region. The Pentagon also has scores of warplanes and other assets across the Gulf, including air bases in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

At sea, the U.S. Navy plans to lead maneuvers in September that include minesweeping drills — a clear response to Iran's threats to block oil tankers from passing through the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf in retaliation for the tightening Western sanctions.

The U.S. is also boosting its Gulf flotilla, directed by the Navy's 5th Fleet in Bahrain. Among the additions: a floating assault base aboard the retrofitted USS Ponce and accelerated deployment of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis to ensure two carriers are in the Gulf region at all times.

"We are seeing more and more bluster from the Iranian side and the U.S. and Gulf allies showing the Iranians they are a united front," said Theodore Karasik, a regional security expert at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. "The Gulf states are nervous. They show this nervousness by buying more weapons."

Among the proposed U.S. sales is a $4.2 billion package to Kuwait for 60 Patriot missiles and related systems to "strengthen its homeland defense and deter regional threats," the Defense Department said in a statement. Kuwait could also buy, pending congressional approval, a $49 million arsenal of 300 Hellfire II missiles, which can be launched from helicopters or drones.

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