Imagine a scenario where a planet declares war on a nearby enemy, but the entire conflict is fought on computers. Even though the combat is simulated, citizens who are listed as virtual casualties are killed for real in a termination booth.
This was the premise of a 1967 episode of cult TV classic ‘Star Trek’, which chronicled the intergalactic adventures of captain Kirk and his crew aboard the Enterprise spaceship.
While the fictional episode was aired nearly two decades before the internet or computer games become popular, the premise has some echoes in modern warfare, where online computer hacking and virtual combat manoeuvres have increasingly become standard tactics in combat.
Termination booths are unlikely to be adopted any time soon, but retired major general Khaled Al Buainain, a former chief of the UAE’s air force, says his country’s advanced cyber infrastructure made it a favourite target for hackers, especially when tension heightened during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The last war in Gaza led to a barrage of cyber attacks because UAE has advanced telecommunications infrastructure,” Al Buainain says. “The biggest attack was during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, which was carried out by pro-Israeli hackers who did not understand the nature of the conflict and its parties.”
His comments come a few months after a virus infected 30,000 computers at Saudi Arabia’s national oil company, Saudi Aramco, which was aimed at stopping oil and gas production at the world’s biggest oil exporter.
The attack failed to disrupt production, but was one of the most destructive cyber strikes against a single business. Cyber attacks on infrastructure by hostile governments, militant groups or private “hacktivists” have the potential to disrupt oil and gas supplies to power plants and desalination plants, on which the Gulf states are heavily reliant.
“All the evidence that we have confirms that the attacks will increase,” says Robert Eastman, vice president for global solutions at Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon’s biggest supplier.
Qatar’s natural gas firm Rasgas was hit by a cyber attack in September 2012, although it has not said how much damage was caused or whether it was the same virus that hit Aramco.
Similarly, in April last year, a virus targeted the Iranian oil ministry and national oil company networks, forcing Iran to disconnect the control systems of oil facilities including Kharg Island, which handles most of the country’s crude exports.
Eastman confirms the US supplier is in discussions with officials in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE about the company’s training and vulnerability analysis systems.
At present, Lockheed Martin estimates only around 5 to 8 percent of its revenues in the information systems sector are related to cyber security, with the division generating $9.4bn sales in that division in 2011.
While virtual warfare is still in its infancy, the Middle East is one of Lockheed Martin’s prime markets when it comes to supplying traditional weaponry, says Charles W. Moore, Jr, chief executive of the firm’s UAE operations and commander of the US Navy’s forces in the Gulf between 1998 and 2002.
“Our international business in 2011 was 17 percent of our revenue and [around] 20 percent in the next few years. In the Middle East it is our fastest-growing region,” he says. “It is a region full of challenges and Lockheed Martin has the portfolio and capabilities to perfectly align with what our customers are looking for.”
According to the latest Global Militarisation Index by the Bonn International Centre for Conversion (BICC), the Middle East is the most militarised region in the world, with all of its countries ranked among the top 40 and three of the six Gulf states in the top ten. Kuwait is considered the most militarised in the GCC, in seventh position globally, followed by Bahrain (ninth) and Saudi Arabia (tenth).
The high rankings were as a result of a dramatic increase in foreign weapon sales by the US to Gulf states, which tripled in 2011 to $66.3bn, as regional governments sought to build up their military supplies amid growing tensions with Iran. The sales reached a record high, up from $21.4bn in 2010 and $31bn in 2009, according to a study by the US Congressional Research Service.
“I would just say, once again, that for the specific rationale for requirements you have to ask them [local governments],” Moore says. “Frankly, it doesn’t have much at all to do with the Arab Spring.”
“From where we stand, it makes sense… These countries are serious about their security and are seeking to defend themselves. They are seeking to partner with the US and UK and other allies that are linked together for many years to help them with this effort.”
The US and the EU have imposed several rounds of sanctions on Iran to pressure it to give up its uranium enrichment programme. America and its allies believe Iran is looking to build nuclear weapons and despite the state's claim that the programme is for civilian purposes, the confusion and perceived possible threat has been a catalyst for Gulf States to boost their defence forces.
“Integrated air and missile defence [sales] are growing and it is growing in response to the threat that is emerging. That threat is coming principally from Iran. You have the threat of ballistic missiles, the threat of cruise missiles, and the threat from aircraft,” Moore says.
“I have been here and operated here for many years. In the last few years, the worry about that threat has increased significantly. As you have read in the newspapers, this region right now is very tense and the guys who are running the countries are paying attention to that and they are making investments to protect themselves.
“So a company like ours has the capability, if you look at our portfolio, that is perfectly aligned to their requirements. So that doesn’t surprise us that they are investing to meet these threats.”
In terms of what Gulf countries are interested in, Moore says there are two core areas: aircraft and integrated missile defence systems. “We are still selling F-16 [aircraft] throughout the region and we have sold some recently in Iraq and Oman. The C-130 has been in continued construction for nearly 60 years and that is an airplane everyone loves and we have sold a lot of them. And we expect to sell a lot more.”
While Patriot missiles, Patriot systems and Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missiles are also in demand, new advanced technology, which is still in development, is also proving popular. Lockheed Martin is currently developing a silent supersonic commercial business jet and is aiming to launch the technology within the next few years in order to cater to demand from Arab jet owners.
“I can tell you that we do a tremendous amount of research… One of the things we are always trying to figure out is how can you drive the [aircraft] airframe through the air mass supersonically and not have a sonic boom impact on the ground,” Moore says.
“We are researching it; we are developing it, looking at it, exploring it… I suspect some day we may see an airplane that has the ability to travel supersonically quietly,” he adds.
Supersonic business jets are small craft that are intended to travel at speeds above Mach 1.0, or over 1,470 km/h. The most recent supersonic aircraft, the now-retired Concorde, travelled at Mach 2.04 or 2,179 km/h at cruise altitude.
Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works division, the nickname for the company’s Advanced Development Programmes (ADP), has been working on a Quiet Supersonic Transport (QSST) system for the last six years. Designed to fly at around Mach 1.6, the plane is being designed to travel without a resulting loud sonic boom.
Moore says demand for such an aircraft already existed in the region from wealthy Arab jet owners who are eager to fly faster and quieter. “I would say that initially a business jet would be a good way to start with that and we have actually talked to people about the prospect of that in this region.”
While reports have claimed the aircraft could be brought to market in 2014 and will cost around $80m, when pushed for a timeframe, Moore says the commercial roll-out of such technology is some years away.
“It would be measured in years but this isn’t a front burner project. We are on the verge, we think, of some technology but we are not sure it has great use on the military side but maybe it has better use on the commercial [side].”
Another aircraft on the Gulf’s radar is Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which had its first test flight in 2006, and which is a single-seat, single-engine aircraft with stealth capability. While stealth aircraft are currently not available for sale in the Gulf, Moore says there is demand from regional governments and it is only a matter of time before such sales are cleared by US authorities.
“When it comes to stealth, the US government is the one that will decide what countries and when they will be authorised to possess that technology. We anticipate that those days will come, I wouldn’t know when; you’d have to go ask the US government, but I suspect they will come and those airplanes will be released out here and our customers will be able to have them,” he believes. “Every customer that is flying the F-16 [aircraft] has a potential as a future F-35 customer.”
Stealth aircraft may not be available yet but the next generation of warships will be coming soon, Moore says. “In our portfolio we have the one I love the most, our new ship — the Littoral Combat Ship — which we have produced. It is magnificent and, in my opinion, as former commander of all maritime forces in the region for four years and arguably more experienced in this domain than almost anyone who has served out here, it is a ship that has been designed for this region.
“It is a smaller ship… it is 118 metres and only draws about twelve feet of water. The Gulf is relatively shallow; the average depth is about 150 feet. In this region, where our partners don’t have a lot of manpower, they can’t afford to have hundreds of people on a vessel; they would prefer to have tens.
“The speed can go up to 50 knots so there [is the] ability for a small number of these ships to respond to a variety of challenges… You can get under way in Abu Dhabi and be in the Strait of Hormuz dealing with whatever situation there [very quickly]… Our partners in the region are talking to us about that ship and various configurations of it.”
The US Navy plans to send Lockheed Martin’s first Littoral Combat Ship, or LCS-1, to Singapore in mid-April and Australia and Denmark are already buying the vessel.
The world’s largest defence contractor, Lockheed Martin is will be hoping sales of its latest technological breakthroughs will help it boost sales in the coming years after it predicted 2013 sales will decline “at a low single-digit rate from 2012 levels”, Bloomberg reports. The company’s aeronautics unit also reported its third-quarter revenue decreased 7.5 percent to $3.7bn and operating profit was down seven percent to $415m.
Foreign arms sales have become increasingly important to weapons makers as the Pentagon’s budget flattens because of US deficit-reduction requirements. Despite this commercial constraint, Moore says he would prefer his customers never have to use the arms they are currently stockpiling. “We want our partners to be strong but the primary objective is to not have to go to war.”
As the aforementioned captain Kirk famously said: “Our missions are peaceful...not for conquest. When we do battle, it is only because we have no choice.”
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