Conventional Armed Forces in the Gulf
June 24, 2008
Conventional military strength is only one aspect of the trends in Gulf security, but it is important to understand how Gulf forces now compare and the mix of quantitative and qualitative strength that shapes national forces. The attached report summarizes the development of Gulf states’ conventional military strengths and weaknesses in force strength, force quality, capabilities and leadership. This report can be downloaded here.
The Key Factors Shaping Southern Gulf Forces
The Iraq War, war on terrorism, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may have made the US and outside forces unpopular, but this has done little to push Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE towards finding an effective collective alternative to dependence on the US. All are members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), but the GCC remains largely a myth in war fighting, deterrence, and force development terms.
The Southern Gulf states have not yet adjusted their national force plans to take account of the disappearance of Iraq as a major regional threat, and must now further adjust their forces to deal with Iran’s growing missile forces and the threat it will become as a nuclear power. They also face the risk that the power vacuum in Iraq will become a threat of a different kind and/or give Iran decisive influence over a Shi’ite-dominated Iraq. This latter risk seems to be steadily diminishing but cannot be ignored.
Most Southern Gulf states still have some degree of tension with their neighbors, although they do seem to have resolved many past border and territorial disputes. The end result is that the Southern Gulf States continue to have closer real-world military cooperation with the US than with each other, although the smaller Southern Gulf states now cooperate more closely with the US than Saudi Arabia.
Saudi-US military cooperation was key to the quick coalition victory in the Gulf War. Some aspects of Saudi-US cooperation have been curtailed as a result of the events of “9-11,” and tensions over the war on terrorism. US-Saudi cooperation was much closer in the Iraq War in 2003, however, than is generally apparent.
This cooperation involves far more than simply hosting US forces. A wide range of US advisory, training, and exercise activity takes place with Southern Gulf states, as well as British and sometimes French forces, at the multilateral level. The US has also tried to encourage the Southern Gulf states to strengthen the GCC as part of this effort.
Military Developments in the Northern Gulf
The virtual destruction of Iraq’s military forces and its capability to deploy or acquire weapons of mass destruction in 2003 has fundamentally changed the Gulf military balance. Yet the longer-term trends described earlier have also had a major effect. While some Southern Gulf states have faced recent problems in recapitalizing their forces, these problems have been far more severe in the case of Iran and Iraq and have affected their military development far longer.
The future of Iranian force development remains unclear. One focus is deploying long-range missiles. Another focus is irregular or asymmetric warfare. Iran continues to develop its capabilities for asymmetric war both on land and at sea, as well as its ability to train and support potential proxies like various Iraqi militias, the Lebanese Hezbollah, and movements like Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Conventional modernization still lags behind the decline in conventional weaponry imposed by age, past combat, and wear.
Trends in Comparative Military Manpower
The fact that Iraq’s 2,600 main battle tanks and 316 combat aircraft are no longer part of the count illustrates just how much the regional balance has changed as a result of the Iraq War.
This further emphasizes Iran’s lead in force size over those of the Southern Gulf states. Iran continues to have far more military manpower than Saudi Arabia, but the effectiveness of this manpower is severely limited by the problems in Iran’s pool of military equipment.
Saudi manpower has increased sharply relative to that of Iran over time. In practice, however, coordination and interoperability remains extremely limited, robbing the smaller Gulf States of much of their potential military effectiveness.
The manpower pool of most smaller Southern Gulf countries is too limited to properly crew and support the pool of weaponry in their land forces. There is also a relatively heavy emphasis on air force and air defense manpower for most countries, and naval manning too small to support effective navies without extensive foreign civilian support.
Trends Affecting Land Forces
Saudi numbers of medium and high quality tanks have near parity with Iran (whose tanks are generally still sharply inferior to those of Saudi Arabia and the tanks in most of the smaller Southern Gulf states).
Iran does not have anything like the number of other armored fighting vehicles necessary to support its strength in main battle tanks.
In general, the smaller Southern Gulf states have developed a good balance of tanks and other armored vehicles. At the same time, it is clear that each of the Southern Gulf states have developed a force mix with little regard to interoperability.
Artillery is the area where Iran has its greatest lead over the Southern Gulf states. It is also clear, however, that almost all of the Iranian lead is in towed weapons, and its artillery maneuver strength is severely limited.
Trends Affecting Air and Air Defense Forces
The growing importance of armed helicopters in the Southern Gulf is not insignificant. Iranian holdings are largely worn and obsolescent and the Iraqi armed helicopter forces no longer exist.
Saudi Arabia has an advantage over Iran in terms of high quality aircraft. At the same time, there is a lack of standardization and persistent interoperability problems of the Southern Gulf states.
There is only limited emphasis on reconnaissance aircraft capability in the Gulf region, and the limitations to situation awareness and targeting. The problems for the southern Gulf States will, however, be of limited importance if they operate in a coalition with the US.
Saudi Arabia has the only modern mix of advanced land-based defenses in the Gulf. Iran has extensive assets, but many are obsolete or obsolescent, and they are poorly netted and vulnerable to electronic warfare. Iraq no longer has such assets. The smaller Southern Gulf states have a wide mix of assets, purchased with little attention to interoperability.
Trends Affecting Naval Forces
Iran is the only significant Gulf Navy. Saudi Arabia has significant total ship strength, and better and more modern ships, but limited readiness and proficiency. Once again the lack of interoperability, specialization, and orientation around key missions leaves most Southern Gulf navies with only limited ability to cooperate.
Remaining Hollow at Great Cost
It is clear from both arms transfer and military expenditure data that Iran cannot hope to keep pace with the Southern Gulf states in terms of resources. Iraq’s spending is only now beginning to reflect major self-financing, but it will be a half decade or more before Iraq can begin to develop a self-defense capability that might be able to meet a serious challenge from any of its neighbors. There is no current prospect that it can again become a major conventional power in the next decade.
The Southern Gulf leads the regional arms race that the Northern Gulf states began. Saudi Arabia has by far been the largest spender in the Gulf, although several small Southern Gulf states – notably the UAE, Kuwait and Oman – have been very large spenders in proportion to their size.
The US is the major arms supplier for most of the Gulf States, although major Western European suppliers have recently begun to plan an increasing role in supplying Saudi, Emirati and Omani armed forces. Other Gulf States have chosen to include Russian arms imports as part of a broader force mix of systems from the US and Europe.
The Southern Gulf states have not transformed their superiority in military spending into forces whose effectiveness are proportionate to their cost. The potential desirability of regional cooperation, standardization and interoperability, and training and organization for joint operations on a GCC-wide level is obvious.
Rivalries and past tensions between the Southern Gulf states prevented serious efforts at developing joint capabilities and interoperability. At the same time, a number of states limited their military efforts because of the fear of coups. The end result was that the Southern Gulf states largely preferred de facto dependence on US and British power projection forces over effective regional and national military efforts.