US-Saudi Arabia: Beefing up military muscle

President Barack Obama is expected to submit the proposal for a major arms deal with Saudi Arabia to the US Congress hoping for approval before the Congressional elections in mid November.

By Nicole Stracke

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Thu 16 Sep 2010, 10:51 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:32 AM

The arms deal, if approved, would allow Saudi Arabia to purchase up to 84 new F-15 fighters, upgrade another 70, and buy around 178 helicopters of all kinds (Apaches, Black Hawks and Little Birds). Some have suggested that the US is even encouraging the Saudis to purchase the THAAD air missile defense system that is designed to intercept short and intermediate range ballistic missiles from outer atmosphere.

The Saudi military wish list only underlines the current trend in the GCC states to put the emphasis on strengthening both offensive and defensive air capabilities.

Other states in the Gulf region such as the UAE have been forerunners in acquiring the latest hi-tech military hardware and equipment. The UAE is negotiating to obtain the state-of-the-art THAAD air defense system in the near future as well as upgrade its Patriot missile system aiming to establish a ‘defensive curtain’ that provides comprehensive protection from short, medium and long range missiles.

The reasons for the Saudi arms deal are comprehensible and justifiable. A large part of Saudi military hardware, in particular the air force and air defense, is old. Most of the weapons systems and the military equipment were acquired during the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s. The rapid advance in weapons technologies has undermined the effectiveness of these systems and underlined the need to replace or upgrade a good part of the country’s military arsenal. No doubt, the hi-tech new generation of weapons is costly to buy and maintain; however, the steady high oil price over the past few years has enhanced the financial ability of the Gulf States, allowing the governments to spend money on a range of military purchases. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are good examples of this. Moreover, the strong and determined leadership of King Abdullah has facilitated such a decision on a political level within Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi armament policy tries to address the country’s specific needs and is a response to its evolving defense requirements. Further, the armament policy is guided by factors such as geography and the nature of perceived threats. The large geographical area of the country and the nature of its territory require the Saudi armed forces to enhance their air capability. A quick response to an immediate threat would require the armed forces to have a high level of mobility enabling them to move across a vast territory that stretches from the Red Sea to the Arabian Gulf, and from the Yemeni borders to Iraq.

Over the past year, the Saudi army has confronted the threat emanating from the Houthi rebellion in North Yemen bordering the Kingdom. When the clashes spilled over the Saudi border, the Saudis found themselves directly engaged in a war with the Houthi rebels. During the course of the confrontation, the Saudi army relied heavily on the use of helicopters that enabled them to fight at night and in the inaccessible territory of the Saada governorate; combat helicopters have proven to be a valuable tool in containing and countering the rebellion as they offer tactical advantages over the fighter jets, in particular in mountainous terrain that requires anti-guerilla capabilities. Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that the Kingdom’s new armament list includes a relatively large number of combat and logistical support helicopters.

Iran is another important reason why Saudi Arabia, like the other GCC states, puts so much emphasis on strengthening its air capability. The looming threat of a possible Israeli or US military strike on the key Iranian nuclear installations and a consequent potential Iranian retaliation on Saudi targets, including oil facilities, require the Kingdom to prepare for the worst-case scenario. Acquiring a new generation of F-15 fighters would ensure the Kingdom’s air superiority over its eastern neighbour and give the Saudi air force a clear strategic advantage over the outdated Iranian air force. Indeed, at this point Iran could use its missile capability – its only strategic military advantage – to retaliate. Besides the Iranian nuclear issue, the overall unstable security environment in the Gulf region also is a matter of concern. The uncertainty surrounding the situation in Iraq and the unpredictable security developments in Yemen is a source of worry for the Saudi leadership. The Saudi government may find it difficult to identify the new sources of potential threats and therefore wants to be well prepared to deal effectively with any future security challenges.

The changing international environment and the political mood inside the US make it inevitable that the US will review its military presence in the Gulf region over the next decade. It can be expected that in the coming years, the US will consider a new policy relating to its military deployment in the region. While there seems no question that the strategic engagement of the US and its commitment to sustain its role as “guarantor” of the region’s security will continue, the policy trend is likely to be in the direction of “responsibility sharing” with its partners in the region, including Saudi Arabia. An arms deal of this nature may facilitate the actual implementation of such a new US strategic vision and help the US administration to realise the objective of “burden sharing” by shifting a part of its present defense responsibilities. Such an argument could help the President to convince the critics of the proposed arms deal in the US Congress to overcome their doubts.

Nicole Stracke is Researcher at the Security and Terrorism Department in the Gulf Research Center, Dubai

More news from