Foreign Policy Essay

"Little Sparta" and the Good Problem of Capable Allies

By Kenneth M. Pollack, Joseph W. Rank
Sunday, August 30, 2020, 10:01 AM

Editor’s Note: The United Arab Emirates has emerged as an important regional power in the Middle East, and its military has achieved a high degree of proficiency. This skill worries some observers, who note the UAE’s interventions in Libya and Yemen and warn that this may work against U.S. interests. Kenneth Pollack of the American Enterprise Institute and Brig. Gen. (ret.) Joseph W. Rank argue for why the increase in the UAE’s military capabilities benefits the United States and offer guidelines for working with allies whose interests overlap with, but don’t match, those of the United States.

Daniel Byman

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Even with all the other, much bigger problems facing the United States and the world, some American policymakers and experts are taking time to warn about the supposed danger of the growing military capabilities of the United Arab Emirates and its willingness to use them. In particular, the Emirati interventions in the Yemeni and Libyan civil wars have elicited numerous criticisms about what they are doing there and why. From our perspective, having a capable partner is a pretty good problem to have.

That’s because it reflects a big, and mostly positive, change from the past and an important lesson for the future. In coming years, if the United States is going to try to do less in the Middle East, it is going to have to count on its regional allies more. The new “problem” of Emirati military prowess should be seen as an important test case for how the United States should address the changing security dynamics in the region. This will require the United States to better prioritize its interests and recognize that allies like the UAE will often go their own way.

The two of us have been doing considerable work on the Emirati military in recent years, and we see the growth of its capabilities—and Abu Dhabi’s concomitant willingness to use them—as a real potential asset, rather than as a liability, as others have claimed. Rank was the senior U.S. defense attaché in the UAE from 2015 to 2017, as well as in Yemen, Lebanon, and Jordan, and ended a 30-plus-year military career as acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy. Pollack is a former CIA Persian Gulf military analyst who recently finished a major study of UAE military capabilities that involved dozens of interviews with Emirati and Western military officers highly familiar with the UAE armed forces.

The Growth and Limits of Emirati Military Power

Over the past two decades, with Emirati ambition and American assistance, the UAE has developed impressive military capabilities—remarkable by the relatively low standards of the Arab world. The small Emirati special operations forces are first rate, able to conduct both kinetic assaults and more sophisticated training and advisory missions. The UAE’s helicopter force is outstanding, both for fire support and for air lift, and some units have even outperformed comparable American units in demanding training exercises. Likewise, the Emirati Air Force has a small cadre of world-class planes and competent pilots—bolstered by joint terminal air controllers (JTACs) trained to NATO standards—that together give them the ability to conduct deliberate and dynamic strike missions with considerable accuracy. Even elements of the larger UAE Land Forces have demonstrated aggressiveness, the capability to integrate fire and maneuver, and an ability to employ the UAE’s world-class tanks, artillery, and other weapons systems in combined arms teams.

The improvement in the UAE’s logistical capabilities has been less visible, but perhaps more impressive. Few militaries—and still fewer Arab militaries—have been able to deploy and sustain forces hundreds or even thousands of miles away from their homeland, in combat in harsh, desert conditions. The Emirates have now demonstrated this capability in Yemen, in the horn of Africa and even in Libya.

Although large numbers of Western expatriates provide training, planning, and strategic oversight of these missions, most of the heavy lifting is increasingly done by Emiratis themselves. That has been especially true in Yemen and Libya, where Emiratis have done the bulk of the fighting, the bulk of the tactical planning and command, and the bulk of the logistical support. In truth, there aren’t many NATO countries that could do what the UAE did for nearly five years in Yemen.

Of course, there are still important limitations on Emirati capabilities, and challenges that will need to be overcome if the UAE’s armed forces are going to continue to improve. Right now, only a small number of Emirati personnel and formations have reached the highest levels of effectiveness. It is hard to know for certain, but probably no more than three to four brigades’ worth of ground troops and 100 to 150 Air Force pilots make up the sharp tip of the Emirati spear. The rest of the force is more uneven, and some of it is still in need of further investment. The Emirati Navy is a good example of this, although to its credit it has deployed for years to provide support in the Gulf of Oman and the Red Sea to UAE forces ashore. Nonetheless, they have been unable to meaningfully prevent Iranian support to the Houthi rebels in Yemen and attacks on Emirati oil exports in the Gulf—although, frankly, that would be hard for the most capable navies, including that of the United States. Moreover, these threats have galvanized Abu Dhabi to start investing more significantly in their naval forces.

Thus, as capable as the UAE military is, the Emirati armed forces are not prepared to sustain large-scale attrition campaigns for many years, as the United States did in Iraq and Afghanistan. They could mount a formidable defense against Iranian aggression, particularly since Iran has little capability to project conventional forces across the Gulf beyond firing missiles and sending drones. But if U.S. air and naval forces were ever withdrawn and the Iranians were able to put a large land force on the southern side of the Gulf, that would pose a major challenge for the UAE’s armed forces.

Nevertheless, the UAE military can strike and destroy targets thousands of miles from its bases. It can deploy small but capable formations for everything from quick special forces assaults to somewhat larger (brigade-sized) mechanized operations and conduct the full-spectrum of fire support to missions of such size.

Be Careful What You Wish For

These new capabilities have opened doors for the UAE to advance its national security goals. Having served alongside U.S. forces in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Syria at Washington’s request, Abu Dhabi has since intervened against American wishes (albeit with U.S. support) in Yemen alongside the Saudis, as well as in the horn of Africa, and now in Libya. Where once the United States was grateful to have the UAE participate in conflicts serving its interests, Washington now has friction with Abu Dhabi because they have learned much from fighting beside U.S. forces and are now employing their capability to act without U.S. assistance.

This is what we would consider a good problem. Exactly the kind of problem that the United States has long wanted to have.

For decades, the United States has bemoaned the military weakness of its Gulf Arab allies, which have required American military forces to help defend them against external threats. Although the U.S. military commitment to the Gulf has always been much smaller and cheaper than most Americans realize, two consecutive administrations have now sought to diminish that presence further. But disengagement from the Middle East risks allowing Iran and all manner of violent extremist groups to fill the vacuum if the United States’ Arab partners aren’t strong enough to do so themselves.

That’s part of why the United States has consistently asked the UAE and other Arab states to build their military capabilities and why we should continue to do so in the future.

Differences of Opinion

Although it would be nice if U.S. allies never took any action without asking permission first, that’s hardly realistic. The key is to recognize what would constitute a true problem for U.S. interests, as opposed to what should be seen as policy divergences that are outweighed by the benefits of finally having Arab partners with some meaningful military capability to shoulder some of the burden. Especially in the Middle East, where the United States wants to do less, and is (unfortunately) doing less and less to defend the interests of its allies, those allies are likely to find new ways to protect their interests themselves.

Allies going their own ways at times is inevitable, especially if the United States continues to try to decrease its role in the region. For instance, though many U.S. national security experts believe that the Saudi-Emirati intervention in Yemen was a losing proposition and a mistake, the Saudis and Emiratis saw the Houthi takeover of Sana’a and Aden as a threat to their security interests in two ways: They feared the Houthis (and their Iranian allies) would interdict shipping in the Red Sea and launch missile and drone attacks across the border with impunity (which they have since done). Moreover, the intervention was partly the outcome of America’s own unwillingness to address the expansion of Iranian aggression and proxy warfare across the region. If the United States wasn’t going to stop Tehran and its allies, U.S. allies felt they had to do so themselves with their partially U.S.-enabled military capability.

Like it or not, this situation will probably recur and multiply in the future. Thus, it is critical that the United States develop a more pragmatic approach to such actions by its Arab allies, and a better method of gauging how to shape its responses.

To that end, we believe that the United States should assess a foreign intervention by one of its Arab allies, including the UAE, based on four fundamental criteria:

Does the intervention contravene U.S. vital interests? Obviously, the United States does not want its allies taking actions that are detrimental to critical American interests. But that’s where the emphasis should lie. The Emirati interventions in Yemen, the horn of Africa and Libya were not necessarily in accordance with U.S. policy toward those regions, but they did not undermine vital American interests there. Moreover, since U.S. policy objectives and commitments in all three cases were hardly central to U.S. regional interests, it is hard to argue that Abu Dhabi was threatening important American objectives to which it had committed significant resources. And that is what the standard should be: How important is the issue to the United States and how hard is the United States working to move the situation in a different direction? Where the answers to those questions are, “not significantly,” as they were in all three of these cases, Washington should certainly raise its concerns with its partners but be ready to accept that their interests will not always align. However, if one of our regional partners were ever to take an action that would threaten a vital U.S. interest, one where the United States had invested significantly—such as using force against another U.S. partner or ally in the region—the American reaction should be of a different order of magnitude altogether.

Do elements of the U.S. partners’ military intervention violate American laws? The Saudi and Emirati intervention in Yemen triggered disputes over several U.S. laws. In particular, some Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) aircraft were believed to have dropped American cluster munitions in ways that resulted in civilian casualties. Likewise, they were providing U.S.-manufactured equipment (or equipment that contained American parts and technology) to Yemeni militias without explicit U.S. permission, which is required by law. In the former case, U.S. laws created useful leverage to convince both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to adopt American procedures for minimizing civilian damage from air strikes, something that has ultimately proved beneficial to both of them. In the latter case, the United States objected to the likely transfer of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs)—essentially armored “battle taxis”—to Yemeni militias. The MRAPs are not state of the art technology, nor are they powerful weapons that will change the balance of power in Yemen. Although the U.S. government needs to respect all of its laws, there are some that it should make a greater effort to enforce with its allies than others, and when it comes to situations like these, the United States should focus on the spirit of those laws more than the letter. In this case, the law is meant to prevent American technology from falling into enemy hands and prevent American weapons from being used to cause large-scale death and mayhem. Putting a shoulder into those cases that contravene the spirit of the U.S. law—like the cluster munitions issue—gives the United States greater influence when it does so, especially if it puts less emphasis on those that don’t, like the MRAPs.

Does the Arab partners’ military intervention violate the law of armed conflict (LOAC) and its four major tenets: military necessity, distinction between military and civilian targets, proportionality, and unnecessary suffering/humanity? In this brief post we cannot fully evaluate if the Saudis and Emiratis violated the LOAC in Yemen. As we know from our own experience, this is no simple matter and must be drilled and trained into both commanders and troops on the ground, particularly when the enemy has little to no regard for the LOAC. Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia welcomed U.S. assistance to help them do better. This conflict has also proved even more challenging than most because the Houthis, like Hezbollah and Hamas, often intentionally use civilian sites to launch attacks to increase the likelihood that their opponents might make the mistake of striking civilian targets.

No surprises. Although the United States will not always know how or when specifically its GCC partners decide to use their newly acquired military capabilities, it should expect to be informed well in advance when its partners plan to embark on new campaigns or in new regions where they may seek to employ their military. They should let the United States know well beforehand if they are going to intervene somewhere, but Washington should not expect them to vet every operation they plan to conduct once they are engaged. For its part, the United States should recognize that just because it is being informed does not mean it should necessarily expect partner states to alter their plans if Washington does not approve of them, as long as they meet the preceding three criteria. Allies and partners don’t always agree, but they should not surprise each other—and that goes both ways.

The past two U.S. administrations have seemed intent on disengaging from the Middle East even as the region sinks deeper into conflict and strife. This is a risky and arguably flawed policy, one that has already contributed to the rise of the Islamic State, prolonged conflict in Syria and Libya, mass refugee flows into Europe and the populist movements they inspired, and worsening conflict among the three regional coalitions led by Iran, Turkey-Qatar, and Saudi Arabia-UAE. Yet if Washington is determined to pursue this course, then it is imperative that it bring its policies into alignment with its (diminishing) commitment of resources. This will mean continuing to build up the military capabilities of its regional allies as it has the UAE while devising a workable framework with them for the use of their militaries like the criteria described above. Doing so will be imperative not only to minimize misunderstandings between the United States and its partners, but also to minimize the risks to the United States’s enduring interests in the region.