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- On October 20, 2010, the U.S. State Department notified Congress of its intention to make the biggest arms sale in American history – an estimated $60.5 billion purchase by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The package represents a considerable improvement in the offensive capability of the Saudi armed forces.
- Saudi Arabia’s armed forces are compartmentalized by royal family faction, and do not share communications. They include the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF), Royal Saudi Land Forces (RSLF), Saudi Arabian Royal Guard (SARG), and Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG). This system is at once a form of coup-proofing and power-balancing.
- SANG, headed by King Abdullah and his sons, is slated to be particularly blessed with 156 new helicopters, significantly increasing its mobility and attack capabilities. Abdullah has significantly upgraded the SANG, which amounts to the personal militia of his family faction.
- The U.S. was keen to point out that the arms transfer would increase “interoperability” with U.S. forces. In the 1990-1991 Gulf War, having U.S.-trained Saudi forces, along with military installations built to U.S. specifications, allowed the American armed forces to deploy in a comfortable and familiar battle environment. This new deal would increase these capabilities, as an advanced American military infrastructure is about to be built.
- Totally offensive in nature, the package, with its attack planes, helicopters, and “bunker-buster” bombs, was clearly designed to deter Iran and to send a strong signal, perhaps previously lacking in the Obama administration, that the U.S. would stand strongly by its allies. U.S. officials have also begun to refer to the “Persian Gulf” as the “Arabian Gulf,” a hot-button issue for the Iranians.
On October 20, 2010, the U.S. Department of State notified Congress of its intention to make the biggest arms sale in American history – an estimated $60.5 billion purchase by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Information on the deal had been leaking since August, as the White House tested congressional opinion.
The U.S. has a strong defense relationship with Saudi Arabia. The Congressional Research Service has described the history of arms sales to the kingdom:
The United States has long been Saudi Arabia’s leading arms supplier. From 1950 through 2006, Saudi Arabia purchased and received from the United States weapons, military equipment, and related services through Foreign Military Sales (FMS) worth over $62.7 billion and Foreign Military Construction Services (FMCS) worth over $17.1 billion (figures in historical dollars). These figures represent approximately 19 percent of all FMS deliveries and 85 percent of all FMCS deliveries made worldwide during this period. The largest single recent U.S. foreign military sale to Saudi Arabia [until now – JT] was a $9 billion contract for 72 F-15S fighter aircraft. The contract was signed in May 1993, and delivery of the F-15S aircraft was completed in 1999.1
Components of the Sale
The announcement of the sale was formalized in four separate notifications to Congress, representing various arms of the Saudi armed forces, and reflecting the divided control of the Saudi military between two main royal family factions:
1. The Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF)2 was prepared to purchase 84 F-15SA aircraft, 1,100 GBU-24 PAVEWAY III Laser Guided Bombs (2,000-lb.), and 1,000 GBU-31B V3 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) 2,000-lb. bombs, along with 193 LANTIRN navigation pods (3rd Generation-Tiger Eye), 170 APG-63 (v)3 Active Electronically Scanned Array Radar (AESA) sets, Harpoon, HARM (anti-radar), and Sidewinder missiles. Also included are the upgrade of the existing RSAF fleet of 70 F-15S multi-role fighters to the F-15SA configuration, communication security, site surveys, trainers, simulators, publications and technical documentation, personnel training and training equipment, U.S. government and contractor engineering, technical, and logistical support services, and other related elements of logistical and program support. The estimated cost is $29.432 billion.3
2. The Royal Saudi Land Forces (RSLF)4 were to receive 24 AH-64D Block III Apache Longbow helicopters and associated missiles and electronics. Also included are trainers, simulators, generators, training munitions, design and construction, transportation, personnel training and training equipment, publications and technical documentation, U.S. government and contractor engineering, technical, and logistics support services, and other related elements of program support. The estimated cost is $3.3 billion.
3. The Saudi Arabian Royal Guard (SARG)5 signed up for 10 AH-64D Block III Apache Longbow helicopters with the requisite missiles and electronics. Also included are trainers, simulators, generators, training munitions, design and construction, transportation, tools and test equipment, ground- and air-based SATCOM and line-of-sight communication equipment, personnel training and training equipment, publications and technical documentation, U.S. government and contractor engineering, technical, and logistics support services, and other related elements of program support. The estimated cost is $2.223 billion.
4. The Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG)6 component was 36 AH-64D Block III Apache helicopters, 72 UH-60M Blackhawk helicopters, 12 MD-530F light turbine reconnaissance helicopters, and 36 AH-6i light attack helicopters, along with missiles and electronics. Also included are trainers, simulators, generators, munitions, design and construction, transportation, wheeled vehicles and organization equipment, tools and test equipment, communication equipment, spare and repair parts, support equipment, personnel training and training equipment, publications and technical documentation, U.S. government and contractor engineering, technical, and logistics support services, and other related elements of program support. The estimated cost is $25.6 billion.
The Significance of the Hardware
There is no doubt that the package represents a considerable improvement in the offensive capability of the Saudi armed forces. The RSAF is promised 84 new F-15SAs, and an upgrade of its current 70 F-15Ss to F-15SA standard, giving it a total of 154 advanced aircraft. This comes on top of its already formidable squadrons of 80 American F-15C/Ds, and British-made Typhoons (72) and Tornados (about 100).
One of the most interesting developments concerns the helicopters.7 Saudi Arabia’s armed forces are compartmentalized by royal family faction, and do not share communications.8 This system, put in place by King Faysal (d. 1975), is at once a form of coup-proofing and power-balancing. SANG, headed by King Abdullah and his sons (particularly the commander of SANG, Mut’ib), is slated to be particularly blessed with 156 new helicopters, significantly increasing its mobility and attack capabilities far beyond its traditional role of defending the royal family, controlling Shiites, and protecting strategic locations, such as oil installations. SANG was not known to have any air power at all. Of course, Crown Prince Sultan bin Abd al-Aziz and his son Khalid, who control the RSLF, RSAF and SARG under the Ministry of Defense and Aviation, are getting some pretty hefty hardware as well. Particular attention should be drawn to the SARG Apache Longbows, since the SARG was not known previously to have had helicopters, although it might have drawn them from the RSLF (of which it is officially a part) when needed. The recent deal seems to generally be keeping the balance of power, although Abdullah has significantly upgraded the SANG, which amounts to the personal militia of his family faction.
In both the State Department announcement of the deal by Andrew Shapiro, Assistant Secretary of State for Political Affairs, and the Department of Defense notifications to Congress, the U.S. was keen to point out that the arms transfer would increase “interoperability” with U.S. forces. This is a key point. It was proven in the 1990-1991 Gulf War that having U.S.-trained Saudi forces, along with military installations built to U.S. specifications, allowed the American armed forces to deploy and operate in the theater in a comfortable and familiar battle environment. This new deal would increase these capabilities through the purchase of American arms and training by American personnel.
In essence, as in 1990-1991, an advanced American military infrastructure is about to be built. The U.S. is not relying on joint Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) forces, which do not approach the level of interoperability with each other that the U.S. possesses and aspires to expand even further with the Saudis.9 As the U.S. withdraws from Iraq, Persian Gulf deployment becomes even more critical. In a manner of speaking, the deal amounts to a kind of pre-positioning of U.S.-manufactured war materiel and U.S.-trained personnel in a very strategic theater. At the very least, it would free up U.S. forces to be deployed elsewhere.
The package notably does not include any defensive capabilities, particularly ballistic missile defense (BMD). The Saudis are particularly sensitive to the presence of U.S. troops in the kingdom – indeed, that presence during the Gulf War was one of the reasons cited by Usama bin Ladin for the formation of al-Qaeda – and have dialed down the U.S. footprint significantly as a result. BMD would require a significant presence. But Saudi Arabia has most probably not been abandoned to ballistic missiles. Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the UAE all have U.S.-manned Patriot missile batteries, and U.S. Aegis Combat System-equipped cruisers frequent the Persian Gulf.10 Additional Aegis ships can provide coverage from the Red Sea. It is likely that there are Patriots in Iraq as well. It seems, therefore, that much, if not all, of Saudi Arabia is already covered for BMD from neighboring countries and seas.
Iran: The Elephant in the Room
In fact, totally offensive in nature, the package, with its attack planes, helicopters, and “bunker-buster” bombs, was clearly designed to deter Iran and to send a strong signal, perhaps previously lacking in the Obama administration, that the U.S. would stand strongly by its allies. The deal falls within the general policy announced by President George W. Bush in July 2007 to arm the Gulf states against Iran. At the time, a senior administration official stressed: “This is a big development, because it’s part of a larger regional strategy and the maintenance of a strong U.S. presence in the region. We’re paying attention to the needs of our allies and what everyone in the region believes is a flexing of muscles by a more aggressive Iran. One way to deal with that is to make our allies and friends strong.”11 And this time around, U.S. officials were even bolder. “We want Iran to understand that its nuclear program is not getting them leverage over their neighbors, that they are not getting an advantage,” a senior administration official said as news of the planned sale began to trickle out. He emphasized: “We want the Iranians to know that every time they think they will gain, they will actually lose.”12
That the deal was aimed at Iran was particularly noticeable in Shapiro’s press conference. In particular, Shapiro used the loaded term “Arabian Gulf” in one out of three references for the body of water that has traditionally and officially been termed by the U.S. the “Persian Gulf.” This is a hot-button issue for the Iranians, and was a strong signal both to Tehran and the GCC countries, which call it the Arabian Gulf (al-khalij al-‘arabi). It is hard to believe this phrase was unintentional. The use of the same phrase by Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, less than a week later suggested a more aggressive U.S. stance.13 (A website called www.persianorarabiangulf.com invites readers to vote on which term they prefer. As of this writing, Persian Gulf leads 71 to 29 percent, with over 100,000 responses. Iranians are very patriotic.)
Israel did not raise objections to the sale, except to say that it was “not thrilled about it,”14 but U.S. officials were at pains to stress that there had been previous high-level consultations with Israel, and that the Jewish state’s qualitative military edge was being maintained. Israel was also scheduled to receive the latest in aviation warfare, the F-35, in 2015, the same year the F-15SAs were scheduled to be sent to Saudi Arabia. The Israelis have apparently given the nod.
One prominent member of the royal family, former head of intelligence and former ambassador to Washington Turki Al Faysal, did not seem particularly grateful for the security cooperation. He used a speech to the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations to upbraid the administration for its support of Israel in less than graceful terms. Israel was a “drain on the United States, not as asset,” he averred. “Within the makeup of this administration,” Turki confided, “there are officials who rationalize, excuse, and condone Israeli intransigence.” He railed against the idea of independence from foreign oil, calling it a “canard,” and referred to supporters of Israel as “live human muppets…who are run by AIPAC.”15
While there was only very muted congressional opposition to the sale, President Obama’s public thanking of Saudi Arabia for help in the interdiction of two Yemen-originating bombs headed for Chicago synagogues on October 29 was set to assure smooth sailing for the deal on Capitol Hill.16 The warning had come personally from the Saudi Minister of Interior, Nayif bin Abd al-Aziz.17 Nayif controls the Ministry of Interior and its special security forces, and represents another royal family faction.
Finally, the boost to the ailing U.S. economy should not be ignored as a motivating factor.18 The stakes were particularly high for Missouri, which had Boeing’s F-15 production line with 14,000 jobs, as well as Arizona, Florida, Ohio, and New York.
The sale is sure to be approved by Congress, and with the approval, the U.S.-Saudi security relationship is back on an even keel. Although the two countries do not share many values, they do share security interests. Israel shares many of these interests as well.
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1. Christopher Blanchard, “Saudi Arabia: Background and U.S. Relations,” Congressional Research Service, June 14, 2010.
3. Only the most important aspects in the notification are included in these lists.
7. See Yiftah Shafir, “The White Army Against Iran: The Saudi Arms Deal – Part Two,” Mabat Al, October 28, 2010, www.inss.org.il (Hebrew).
8. See Joshua Teitelbaum, “A Family Affair: Civil-Military Relations in Saudi Arabia,” Draft Paper Presented to the Fourth Mediterranean Social and Political Research Meeting, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, Florence, March 2003.
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Joshua Teitelbaum, Ph.D., is Principal Research Fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He holds research positions at the GLORIA Center, Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, and visiting positions at the Hoover Institution and the Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, both at Stanford University.