Fractious friends

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Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) states not named Saudi Arabia or United Arab Emirates can no longer be easily overlooked in regional military discussions.

Military spending remains small compared with Saudi Arabia's $40 billion annual budget and the UAE's roughly $7 billion procurement account. Combined, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar may spend less than $13 billion this year, according to Forecast International. But the trends point to a shift in the sophistication and the source of armaments.

GCC members today are not unlike the European Union at its beginning, loosely aligned along economic interests, but deeply distrustful over security co-operation. While Iran poses the most immediate security threat, recent military clashes have more typically involved GCC members with each other.

 
 © Boeing

From this fractious tribal confederation, the USA hopes to transform a military coalition similar to NATO, with similar levels of sophistication.A giant step in this direction came in 2005 when Oman placed an order for 12 Lockheed Martin F-16C/D jets, superior in quality if not in quantity to the Iranian air force. Oman occupies a strategic corner of the Arabian peninsula, only a short distance across the Strait of Hormuz from the Omani-controlled Mussundam Peninsula.

Qatar has historically relied on French industry to buy weapons, even as it hosted the US Air Force's Mid-East command centre at Al Udeid. But that policy was broken last year when Qatar signed an order to buy two Boeing C-17s. Two more C-17s could be purchased next year as an option to the existing contract.

The breakthrough sale could help pave the way for US industry to claim the real prize in Doha - a major fighter deal. Qatar reportedly has been discussions to buy Lockheed F-16s since 2007, but the continuing delays have stirred the hopes of rivals.

Boeing flew the two-seat F/A-18F into Doha this year en route to a sales pitch in India, but stopover is widely considered a marketing opportunity. Meanwhile, the French have not stepped inside in the Qatari market, with French president Nicolas Sarkozy personally pitching the Dassault Rafale.

France appears to have greater sway currently in Kuwait. Once considered a lock for the Super Hornet sales team, Kuwait apparently has switched to acquiring up to about 20 Rafales to augment about 40 F/A-18Cs and roughly 14 F-1CK2 Mirages.

In late October, France and Kuwait signed a defence co-operation pact. Kuwaiti defence minister Sheikh Jaber al-Hamad al-Sabah told reporters that the state would be "proud" to acquire Rafales, but was waiting to hear the French government's terms.

The statement appeared to confirm France's increasing leverage in Kuwait arms deals, first signalled earlier this year when Sarkozy pronounced Kuwait ready to buy 12-14 fighters.

But Kuwait remains firmly tied to US industry for weapons and US forces for protection. Despite the potential fighter setback, Boeing is delivering AH-64D Block II Apache Longbow helicopters to Kuwait. Lockheed could supply up to eight KC-130J tanker-transports, according to a US Defense Security Co-operation Agency announcement in July.

Oman is also likely to continue diversifying its fighter sources. BAE Systems is reportedly negotiating a major deal for Eurofighter Typhoons, possibly to offload more fighters from the UK's order account.

Perhaps the GCC's oldest fighter fleet belongs to Bahrain, which operates about 22 relatively modern F-16C/Ds, but also 12 ageing Northrop F-5s. So far, there has been no sign that the island state is searching for a replacement, says Dan Darling, Middle East analyst for Forecast International.

More likely purchases in the near term are helicopters and light transports. US industry enjoys an almost exclusive sales relationship with the Bahrain military, and there are no signs of change.

Another thing that has not changed among the individual purchases by each nation is a focus on command and control and battle management assets. While Saudi Arabia and the UAE seek to integrate forces within their respective militaries, there has been few similar projects launched in the smaller GCC states.

Perhaps that policy will begin to soon change. Surprisingly, Boeing considers Bahrain a candidate to buy the P-8A anti-submarine and maritime patrol aircraft, which also possesses a battle management capability. Such an acquisition would signal a new interest in equipment not purely viewed as a standalone, frontline combat system, but the hub of a larger, system of systems.

"I think they see the need to use modern technology - we'll call it network-centric operations - to help them overcome manpower issues," says Jeffrey Johnson, Boeing vice-president for Mid-East business development.

Boeing is among the companies hoping to open the Middle East to the market for command and control systems. The company is seeking to introduce the Vigilaire ground-based battle management system in the United Arab Emirates.

The GCC states still have to take the first step by integrating their own forces individually. The dream of functioning as a NATO-like alliance would require an even greater leap. It is one thing to develop an indigenous capability to launch combined operations, with one armed service branch supporting and being supported by others. But it is quite another for the GCC states to agree to share the same common operational picture.