The New Saudi Arms Deal

  • Serving Vital US Security Interests
    Aug 24, 2010

    One of the most critical strategic decisions the US will have to make over the next few years is how to reshape its security posture in the Gulf and the Middle East as it fully withdraws from Iraq. There is no possible “end state” to the US presence in the Gulf, or an end to the need for the strongest possible US security ties to friendly states in the region.

    The Emerging Strategic Realities in the Gulf

    The US may face a climate of great uncertainty in shaping some aspects of it security posture in the region, but some factors remain clear:

    • Iran remains an emerging challenge deeply involved in strategic competition with the US and its friends and allies in the region.
    • As General Petraeus and other have made explained, the war against terrorism and extremism in going to be a long war that is likely to go on for the next 10-20 years. The Gulf region is going to be one of the centers of this conflict. Al, Qa’ida is not suddenly going away and new organization are certain to emerge. Nations like Yemen and Somalia present serious long-term risks of becoming centers of terrorist activity.
    • Regardless of the outcome of Iraq’s effort to forge a new government, it will not become a major regional military power again for at least a decade. If the US is to have any major strategic partner in the Gulf, it is going to be Saudi Arabia.
    • US politicians can posture about reducing US strategic dependence on oil imports, but nothing the President or Congress has done to date will have a major impact before 2035 – the last year in which the US Department of Energy makes meaningful projections. The Department’s Annual Energy Outlook for 2010 estimates that even under very favorable assumptions about the growth of alternative liquids, the US will still be dependent on imports for roughly 40% of  its liquid fuels in 2035 – roughly the same percentage as in 1990. These figures do not include additional indirect imports in the form of heavy manufactures. Moreover, the US will have to pay the same world prices for oil as all other importing states if there is a crisis or war in the Gulf. In fact the overall global economy (and indirectly every job in America) will increase its dependence on energy liquids from the Gulf from 28% in 2008 to 31% in 2035 in spite of the same favorable projections about world-wide production of new energy liquids.
    • The US faces growing pressures to limit its military spending and commitments, and has steadily increasing needs for regional allies with strong and interoperable forces to deter and contain regional threats and fight alongside US forces if necessary.
    • It may or may not be possible to move forward quickly in an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, but it is vital to minimize the tensions between our Arab allies and Israel. King Abdullah’s peace plan may differ sharply with Israel’s position, but it shows that the US can sell arms to Saudi Arabia with minimal risk of this impacting on Israel’s security – in fact, strong US security ties to Saudi Arabia offer Israel a far better alternative than Saudi Arabia turning to European or other suppliers and questioning US support if it faces a crisis with Iran.
    • If the US is to deter other regional states from proliferation in reaction to Iran, and make its statements about offering “extended regional deterrence” a credible option, it must show it will do its best to create effective regional partners in the Southern Gulf, as well as try to build a strategic partnership with Iraq.
    • At the same time, neither the US nor its Gulf allies have any reason to seek open confrontation with Iraq. This is particularly true of the Gulf States. “Speak softly and carry a big stick” may not be an old Arab proverb, but Arab leaders have long practiced this with considerable success.

    The US can still count on some support from allies like Britain and France, but the fact remains that it will need it friends and allies in the Gulf even more. The same forces that have made the US and Saudi Arabia key de facto partners in Gulf security will become even more important in the future.

    New US Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia

    The US has already made progress in these areas. It has long been a major supplier to the Gulf Cooperation Council states, and has already sold Saudi Arabia the E-2AAWACS surveillance aircraft, Sikorsky’s UH-60 Black Hawks, Raytheon-built Patriot and Hawk missile defense systems, and General Dynamics Corp.’s M1A2 tanks. It has worked with the GCC states in joint exercises, and has quietly developed a high level of cooperation in counterterrorism.   It has worked with these states in developing counters to Iran’s steadily increasing capabilities for naval asymmetric warfare, and operations against offshore and coastal targets, and is steadily upgrading the air defense forces of many GCC state to provide missile defense capabilities.

    It also has worked with its Gulf allies to develop long-term procurement plans that will improve their capabilities, limit the credibility of any Iranian threats of intimidation, help defend themselves against terrorist or extremist attacks, and fight along side the US against any escalation to large-scale conflict. New US arms sales to Saudi Arabia are part of this effort, although major additional sales are underway or planned for key states like Kuwait and the UAE, and the US works closely with Bahrain, Oman, and Qatar and has bases or contingency bases in these countries.

    The Department of Defense has not yet notified Congress of all of the details of a major new arms sale to Saudi Arabia, but it is clear what this sale could have an direct value well in excess of $50 billion, and mean maintaining a de facto military partnership with Saudi Arabia for at least the next decade. In fact, it means the Saudi Air Force will remain critically dependent on US military and contractor support. According to press reports from Bloomberg News and the Wall Street Journal, and work by the WINEP, the sale will include:

    • 84 new Boeing F-15 combat aircraft, virtually ensuring Saudi air superiority over Iran for the next decade, as well as a far higher level of interoperability with US air forces. The radar equipment on these aircraft is yet to be announced, but it may give the Saudi Air Force far more capability to deal with the kind of small, dispersed target sets that match Iran’s development of dispersed elements of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and the threats posed by its focus on asymmetric warfare.
    • Refurbishing and upgrading 70 existing Saudi F-15S strike aircraft that will help achieve the same objectives.
    • New air munitions, probably including air to surface missiles with the same precision and ability to fire from outside the range of Iranian air defenses as those used by the US Air Force.
    • Up to 60 AH-64D Longbow Apache attack helicopters, and upgrades to 12 existing AH-64As that can be used to deal with threats in areas like the Yemeni border, defend coastal and offshore targets, and counter internal threats from any major terrorist attack.
    • 72 UH-60 helicopters, in addition to the 22 UH-60s now in Saudi forces, greatly enhancing Saudi air mobility and capability to react to any major threat in the Gulf or on its borders.
    • Upgrades to Saudi Arabia's  Patriot PAC 2 missile forces that will improve both air defense against any Iranian air threat and begin to give Saudi Arabia meaningful missile defense capability against a growing Iranian missile threat.
    • A mix of new patrol ships like the Littoral Combat Ship and other naval weapons that will help defend Saudi coastal waters and offshore facilities, and deal with the major emerging threat from the naval branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards.

    Massive as these arms transfers may seem, they will occur over at least a five-year period. They are also linked to a list of ongoing US arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States that will give them a significant “edge” in air superiority against Iran, help protect their borders and coasts against other states, and assist in countering any serious terrorist attacks.

    They are sales that will help secure the flow of energy exports to the global economy and help limit oil prices; they reinforce deterrence rather than threaten it; and they all reduce the size of the force the US must deploy or be ready to project into the region. They will also help ensure the US strategic position in the region at time when other powers like China are becoming key players in global energy, and when recycling “petrodollars” is even more important than in the past.

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Anthony H. Cordesman