Saudi-Iranian struggle for Middle East dominance takes center stage
While the Arab Spring political uprisings stirred speculation that Middle Eastern militaries might alter spending to combat insurgencies, in fact the uprisings appear to have sharpened the countries' concerns about the regional balance of power instead.
The Persian Gulf states, in particular, are embracing a more expansive vision of their foreign policy, as illustrated by the participation of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in NATO's air campaigns over Libya. Their participation constituted the two countries' first involvements in a cross-border military operation.
The UAE dispatched sixF-16Es and six Mirage 2000-9s to Italy, providing the combat debut for both types. Qatar sent six Mirage 2000-5s and supported the operation with its airlifters.
European military officials note that the two air forces largely focused on static, planned targets rather than looking for pop-up ones, which made their engagements easier.
Nonetheless, the move was a big step for Qatar and the UAE. U.S. Air Force Gen (ret.) Charles Wald, who oversaw U.S. air forces in the region, says it was an important political symbol for the two that also built on years of work by their air forces to improve combat skills and become more tactically relevant. The involvement with NATO demonstrated that the two countries are looking to the West for strategic support in case tensions with Iran escalate, he notes.
Though the Libya operation has taken center stage in the region, the actual focus of military planning is increasingly turning to management of the balance of power between Iran and its Persian Gulf neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia. The unrest in Bahrain demonstrated their competition for regional influence, with Saudi forces backing the Bahraini royal family's efforts to squash an uprising they believe was backed by Iran.
Tensions have further intensified in the wake of the alleged Iranian-inspired assassination attempt on the Saudi ambassador in Washington last month. Researchers at the International Institute for Strategic Studies point out that Riyadh's response options are unclear but are not expected to include the direct use of force.
Also complicating the situation is the impending withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are trying to ensure that the other does not gain the political upper hand in Baghdad, notes a senior aerospace and defense industry official.
Nevertheless, the increased tensions are likely to bolster Saudi Arabia's commitment to modernize its armed forces and proceed with several high-end combat arms procurements.Chairman and CEO James McNerney said late last month that he expects the Pentagon's Saudi Arabian package, which includes the sale of 84 fighters, to be completed in a “short-term time frame.” He made the comment in reporting the company's third-quarter financial results. Boeing is already spending money to avoid an F-15 production disruption.
Another fighter deal that appears to be gaining traction is France's long-running effort to sell theto the UAE. French government and industry officials suggest talks are back on track, although after repeated stops and starts nobody is ready to predict when the actual contract may be signed.
Still unclear is if the deal would include the higher-thrust version of theturbojet engine. The 9-ton-thrust version would use inlets that are 1.5 cm (0.60 in.) larger to boost airflow but with a duct designed to be compatible with the standard powerplant.
Further underscoring the UAE's strengthening ties with Western militaries is its effort to upgrade its F-16Es with Link-16 Multifunction Information Distribution System low-volume data terminals. In notifying the U.S. Congress of the potential $401 million sale, the Pentagon notes that the upgrade “will increase combat effectiveness while reducing the threat of friendly fire.”
The Saudi and UAE militaries are not only focused on improving their combat aircraft capabilities. They also should see their force projection abilities strengthened when they start taking delivery ofKC-30 Multirole Tanker Transports before year-end. The first of three KC-30s for the UAE is due to transfer there soon to commence clearance of the aircraft with the F-16E and Mirage 2000s. The KC-30s can also serve to carry 256 passengers in a two-class configuration.
The UAE is moreover still eager to field an airborne early warning capability. It is using two aircraft equipped with theErieye airborne early warning and control system to gain experience in managing it before striking a deal for a permanent technology solution. The -based Wedgetail, E-2D and Saab Erieye are all candidates for that role.
That is not to say the issue of countering insurgencies is entirely off the table for Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Industry officials believe the UAE's delay in finalizing its advanced jet trainer procurement is linked to these deliberations. Although it originally identified thetrainer as the preferred option, the has reentered the mix, partly because of its flexibility as a light attack aircraft. The UAE is already buying the Air Tractor AT-802U for counterinsurgency operations.
Another perennial item of interest for the region is air and missile defense. The UAE expressed interest in acquiring the(Thaad) system, but there has been scant progress on that front and one industry official says the discussions have derailed. However, a program backer says talks among the UAE, Pentagon and industry are advancing.
In a less ambitious air defense procurement, Oman appears to be moving forward with plans to buySurface-Launched Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles. The Pentagon says a $1.3 billion arms deal now under discussion with the country includes 290 missiles as well as shorter-range air defense equipment.