Robust Riyadh

Washington DC
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Saudi Arabia could sign deals within months for new fighters, transports, patrol aircraft, helicopters and air defence systems. This incoming arsenal of arms imports is likely to be sourced across Europe, Russia and the USA, and in some cases assembled and supported by an increasingly sophisticated native aerospace industry.

The price of oil may remain in flux, but the commitment in Riyadh to grow its military power and diversify its supplier network remains constant. Forecast International projects that the defence budget's one-third share of growing state expenditures will continue over the next five years, rising from $39 billion this year to $45 billion by 2013.

Saudi Arabia started replacing the Panavia Tornado, the backbone of its air force, and some Northrop F-5s in 2007, signing a $9 billion deal for 72 Eurofighter Typhoons. Although a huge outlay in this region by itself, the Typhoon contract actually marked the beginning of an ever broader fighter modernisation plan for the Royal Saudi Air Force.

Although Saudi Arabia operates 71 Boeing F-15S strike fighters with mechanically scanned radars, discussions are reportedly close between Saudi and Boeing officials on a deal to buy as many as 72 new F-15s.

saudi air force f-15 us air force
 © US Air Force
Saudi Arabia operates 71 Boeing F-15S strike fighters, and talks are reportedly close for it to acquire up to 72 new F-15s

Boeing declines to comment specifically about the Saudi discussions, but the company is tellingly optimistic about its regional business prospects.

"I feel very good about our F-15 and [F/A-18E/F] Super Hornet offerings in the Middle East," says Jeffrey Johnson, vice-president of business development. "The capabilities we put in the F-15 through the Korean and Singapore buys is tremendous. I think you'll see some movement this year and into next year on both those fighters [in the Middle East]."

Johnson expects Middle Eastern customers to prefer standard configurations, against introducing new capabilities.

"In general, most of the Middle Eastern customers I work with are really aiming for the US product that will take the least amount of modifications," Johnson says.

That statement would appear to rule out the F-15 Silent Eagle, a new variant with a V-tail, internal weapons bay and digital electronic warfare system unveiled by Boeing in March. Asked specifically about Saudi's interest to become the launch customer for the F-15SE, Johnson replies: "We're really talking about the capabilities that we're delivering today out there."

Fighters are a hot commodity in Saudi Arabia's neighbourhood, with the F-35 possibly being introduced in Israel after 2014. Boeing's Johnson notes that the F-15SE's advanced features are designed to be repackaged for existing F-15Es, a fact that might become significant in Saudi's future upgrade plans.

The Gulf region's increasingly sophisticated tactical aircraft fleets have not gone unnoticed in Iran. For nearly a decade, Tehran has sought to bolster its air defences by importing Russia's S-300/-400 surface-to-air missile system. The West has pressured Moscow to hold back from consummating the deal.

Saudi Arabia also appears to have moved to become the counterweight to Iran for Russian industry in the Middle East. Moscow is reportedly in talks to sell the kingdom the S-400 air defence system. Saudi Arabia has apparently backed off plans to buy the Lockheed Patriot Advanced Capability system.

"The Saudis tend to make these forays into armament agreements on the basis of political agreements," says Dan Darling, a Middle East defence industry analyst for Forecast International. "The Saudis are trying to say to the Russians: 'Our market is much more profitable to you. Engage with us. We have much more money to spread around'."

The S-400 sale could open the Saudi market to more Russian business. A $2 billion deal reportedly in talks includes dozens of helicopters, including Mi-17 and Mi35s, plus tanks and infantry vehicles, says Darling.

The helicopter deals are part of a broader procurement strategy for Riyadh. Saudi Arabia also is planning to spend $600 million to acquire 12 Boeing AH-64D Block II Apache Longbows, according to the Defense Security Co-operation Agency (DSCA). Boeing is also reportedly negotiating terms to sell more CH-47 Chinooks to Saudi Arabia, adding to 12 used Chinooks acquired from Libya.

Among the Gulf states, Saudi's military still stands apart as the only force operating airborne "command ships". The United Arab Emirates plans to break that monopoly soon, but Riyadh clearly wants to maintain its advantage. Again, Boeing is likely to become the favoured contractor.

In August, the DSCA notified Congress of a potential $1.5 billion deal to upgrade Saudi Arabia's 13 Boeing-built 707s converted into RE-3 reconnaissance aircraft, KE-3 refuellers and E-3 airborne warning and control aircraft.The two-phase programme described by the DSCA calls for upgrading navigation and communication systems first, and cockpit displays and computers second.

Saudi Arabia may have even broader plans for upgrading its ability to patrol its surrounding territory. When Boeing recruited for a Riyadh-based executive sales executive earlier this year, the company listed the P-8A Poseidon - a maritime patrol aircraft ordered by the US and Indian navies - as a sales target for Boeing in Saudi Arabia.

Johnson acknowledges that Saudi Arabia is among the Gulf countries evaluating the P-8A. Iran is operating Russian Kilo-class diesel submarines in the Persian Gulf, a target the P-8A is designed to detect and destroy.

Boeing's sales pitch for the P-8A is different than for fighters, which is within the Saudi military's experience. A submarine-hunting patrol aircraft requires more time for Boeing to educate the customer before they are ready to make a decision.

Johnson estimates there could be a deal within two years, and says a Saudi P-8A order would "complement a buy on the US Navy production line".

Saudi officials have alsoapparently joined the Gulf region's enthusiasm for building vast fleets of military airlifters, a category previously neglected in most Gulf states.

Over the next several years, Saudi Arabia must start replacing its oldest Lockheed Martin C-130Es and C-130Hs. But the country could join its neighbours by going beyond a replacement and dramatically expanding its airlift capability.

The potential deal could be spread among a wide variety of aircraft types. Alenia Aeronautica predicts Saudi Arabia could buy up to 40 C-27J light transports. Meanwhile, Boeing hopes the kingdom could help the company's efforts to extend C-17 production.

The Lockheed C-130J and Airbus A400M airlifter also remain in the mix, despite the latter's delays, Darling says.