The Saudi Arms Sale

  • Reinforcing a Strategic Partnership in the Gulf
    Nov 3, 2010

    The Department of Defense has proposed a new series of arms transfers to Saudi Arabia whose cost could eventually total up to $60 billion. A new analysis by the Burke Chair indicates that these transfers serve the vital national security interest of both nations. This analysis is entitled The Saudi Arms Sale: Reinforcing a Strategic Partnership in the Gulf. It can be downloaded from the CSIS web site at:

    The analysis examines both nation's strategic interest in the transfers in depth, along with the history and impact of previous transfers, and the details of how each new transfer will affect Gulf security and the stability of world energy exports. In brief, it concludes that the US has critical strategic interests that it shares with Saudi Arabia, and shape the rationale for all four proposed transfers:

    1. For all the talk of the energy independence over the last four decades, the US Department of Energy estimates that the US will be as strategically dependent on imported oil through 2035 as it is today (over 40% of all liquids in the reference case). And, these projections do not take account of our indirect imports of oil in the form of manufactured goods, or our dependence on the health of a global economy that is dependent on stable supply and market driven prices. The stability of Gulf energy exports is critical to our economy and every job in the US.
    2. The US has finite limits to its military power, and both the US and Saudi Arabia face rapidly changing threats. The US needs allies that have interoperable forces the can fight effectively along side the US, and that can ease the burden on the US by defending themselves. Iran already poses a massive asymmetric naval-air-assault force threat to the Gulf states. The US invasion of Iraq has left Iraqi forces a decade away from being any kind of counterbalance to Iran, and Saudi Arabia as the only meaningful regional power to work with. Al Qa’ida in the Peninsula is based in Yemen, and terrorism and outside infiltration are a serious threat for Saudi Arabia. As a result,  creating strong, highly mobile Saudi forces is critical to the security of Saudi energy and civil facilities. Helping Saudi Arabia create a combination of effective air and naval power not only affects the Gulf, but the security of tanker and other shipping in the Gulf of Oman and steadily more unstable Red Sea.
    3. Iran already poses a missile and chemical weapons threat and may pose a nuclear one within the next 3-5 years. Upgrades of the Saudi Patriots have created a base for an integrated approach to air and missile defense. They lay the groundwork for follow-on sales of advanced missile defense systems system like THAAD, and an emphasis on defense – not Saudi purchases of missiles or nuclear systems. Coupled to recent US offers of “extended regional deterrence,” and the new proposed arms sales that can help create a Saudi Air Force that is more of a threat to Iran than Iran’s conventional missiles are to Saudi Arabia, US arms transfers offer the best hope of both giving Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states security and stopping the spread of a nuclear arms race in the region.
    4. The proposed arms sale package creates level of interdependence which not only gives the current Saudi government a strong incentive to work with the US, but all future Saudi governments for the next 15-20 years. Saudi Arabia will need continuing support from the US during the entire life cycle of every major system sold, and no future Saudi government can ignore this fact. Moreover, the sales are large in dollar terms, but not in terms of numbers of weapons. This will not be some kind of massive build-up. Saudi Arabia had an Air Force with some 417 combat aircraft in 2000, and it now has only 219. The Saudi F-15 buy is not a build-up. It will take some 3-5 years to deliver and put fully in service, replace some 87 obsolete F-5A/Bs and F-5EIIs that were in service in 2000, and help Saudi Arabia compensate for the serious performance limits on 107 aging Tornados still in service.

    These conclusions are supported by a recent CSIS book on Saudi security and US and Saudi strategic relations. This books is entitled Saudi Arabia: National Security in a Troubled Region (Praeger, 2009), and can be ordered at: