More than two months after a huge arms deal in the making between the United States and Saudi Arabia became public, the administration officially informed Congress of the deal. The announcement does not come as a big surprise, since the main points of the plan were published previously. The deal includes F-15SA fighter jets, AH-64D Apache heavy attack helicopters, AH-6i light attack helicopters, MD-530 light reconnaissance helicopters, and UH-60 transport helicopters. However, a close look at the details of the announcement reveals several interesting points.
The deal approves the sale of 84 F-15SA multi-purpose fighter jets. This is a new model built specifically for Saudi Arabia, and it is an improvement over the F-15S already in Saudi Arabia’s possession. In addition, all 70 of Saudi Arabia’s F-15S planes will be upgraded to the F-15SA standard. The new model will be equipped with both improved AN/APG-63(V), which is advanced AESA radar, and with improved engines.
The deal also includes a wide range of advanced munitions, including modern navigation/targeting pods, photo-reconnaissance pods, air-to-air missiles, and guided bombs.
Assuming the deal is completed in full, the Saudi air force will have 154 of the very advanced F-15SA attack planes, in addition to some 80 F-15C/D interceptors purchased in the early 1980s, for a total of 234 planes.
The Saudis today are in possession of an array of British-made planes: 72 Typhoons (which are currently being absorbed), and some 100 fighter jets from the various models of the Tornado (which were also purchased in the 1980s; some are now being refurbished to extend their life span). These add about another 170 planes to the Saudi air force.
The helicopter deal was presented to Congress as three separate deals, and the announcement revealed the details of the helicopter models (not all of the details were publicized previously). The big surprise in the announcement was that the largest of the deals was for the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG), not the air force or the army. According to the announcement, SANG will receive 36 Apache AH-64D helicopters, though only 20 of them will be equipped with Longbow radar. In addition, it will receive 30 AH-6i light attack helicopters, another twelve MD-530F light reconnaissance helicopters (the attack helicopter and the reconnaissance helicopter are different models of the same helicopter), and 72 medium-size UH-60M transport helicopters – the newest model of the old Black Hawk.
A separate announcement was made about the sale of 24 AH-64D helicopters to the Saudi Arabian land forces (only ten of them equipped with Longbow radar), and a third announcement was made about the sale of ten AH-64D helicopters to the Saudi Arabian royal guards (seven of them equipped with Longbow radar).
The deal is part of an overall American policy with roots in the Bush administration to strengthen the Gulf states as a force positioned against the increasing strength of Iran. All the official statements that accompanied the announcement emphasized the need to strengthen Saudi Arabia in the face of the threats it faces, and American spokesmen have not hesitated to specify Iran (even though they were quick to note that Iran is not the only threat). At the same time, the announcements emphasized that the systems that were sold are similar or identical to weapon systems in the possession of the United States, other Gulf states, and additional coalition forces. As such, the deal contributes to these forces potential for cooperation, and envisions a military force that is as united and coordinated as possible.
The designation of the deal as against Iran also reflects statements by American spokesmen that they do not expect opposition to the deal (which was also expressed in the official announcement to Congress). That is, they do not expect Israel to object to the deal (as it objected to weapons deals with Saudi Arabia in the past) because they believe that Israel too sees the need to strengthen the forces standing against Iran.
The package, nearly all of which involves offensive weapon systems, indicates the intent to boost the Saudis’ deterrent capability and not their defensive capability. The absence of air defense and missile defense system purchases is particularly striking, in sharp contrast to the purchases of Saudi Arabia’s Gulf neighbors, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. The deal also does not contain a naval component, although it appears that a large deal for the purchase of ships is in the initial stages of negotiations.
The announcement to Congress does not mean that the deal is final. The sides will now enter detailed negotiations, and it will take several years before contracts are signed. Their execution will take many years (according to American spokespeople, from fifteen to twenty years). Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the deals will be executed in full, if at all.
The division of the weapons between the various branches of the Saudi armed forces is intriguing, particularly the helicopter package for SANG. It was not previously known that SANG operates any air assets whatsoever (even though this could have been expected of a force that is trained according to American military doctrines). SANG is a separate force from the army, and is based on recruitment of members of tribes loyal to the royal house. Sometimes it is called “the white army” because of the white robes worn by the members of these tribes. Its functions include, inter alia, protecting the royal house against domestic threats and protecting oil facilities and other strategic facilities. In recent years, SANG has undergone a process of expansion on the basis of extensive arms deals of light armored vehicles, anti-tank missiles, and self-propelled artillery. Nevertheless, the purchase of the air fleet dwarfs all previous deals, and will place the organization on an equal footing with the regular army, or perhaps even a superior footing.
Another force to receive helicopters is the royal guards, a regiment whose formal mission is to protect the royal house. It was incorporated into the regular army in the 1960s, but it maintains its own organizational structure. Nevertheless, this unit has never used fighter helicopters either, and it is not clear what the connection is between these helicopters and its official mission.
In addition to strengthening Saudi Arabia’s deterrent capability against external threats, the weapons deal also likely bespeaks internal power struggles. SANG is dear to King Abdullah's heart, who served as its commander for nearly thirty years. It is not inconceivable that he sees the strengthening of the organization as a way to strengthen his branch of the royal family against other branches of the family in future power struggles.
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