U.S.-Saudi Security Cooperation and the Impact of U.S. Arms Sales
September 14, 2010
U.S.-Saudi security cooperation is becoming steadily more important as Iran expands its capabilities for asymmetric warfare in the Gulf, increases its long-range missile forces, and moves toward a capability to build and deploy nuclear weapons. The same is true of the enduring threat from terrorism, dealing with Iraq’s weakness and uncertain political leadership, the problems of Yemen, and instability and piracy in the Red Sea area and Indian Ocean.
The United States needs all the friends it can find in the Gulf. It faces serious uncertainties in reshaping its security posture in the region as its forces depart from Iraq. These include Iraq’s uncertain future political stance and government, the inability to predict Iranian actions and alignments, the uncertain outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and uncertainties surrounding the success or failure of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Saudi Arabia and Reshaping the U.S. Strategic Posture in the Gulf
At the same time, several factors are clear. There is no possible “end state” to the U.S. presence in the Gulf nor an end to the need for the strongest possible U.S. security ties to Saudi Arabia and other friendly states in the region.
- The United State as must reshape its military posture in the Gulf as it withdraws from the Gulf, as well as reshape its power projection capabilities and contingency plans. It must shape its force posture and cooperation with its regional allies to become more effective in hybrid warfare and in a spectrum of conflicts ranging from covert and proxy warfare to long-range missile defenses and extended regional deterrence—addressing the military side of the risk that Iran may become a nuclear power and giving its allies an incentive not to acquire their own nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
- Iran remains an emerging challenge. It is deeply involved in strategic competition with the United States and its friends and allies in the region. It is developing steadily better capabilities to attack shipping, targets in the Gulf, and targets on the Saudi and southern Gulf coast, and it is using asymmetric warfare in doing so. It is fielding significant long-range missile forces and may acquire nuclear weapons.
- If the United States is to deter other regional states from proliferation in reaction to Iran, and make its statements about offering “extended regional deterrence” a credible option, it must show it will do its best to create effective regional partners in the southern Gulf, as well as try to build a strategic partnership with Iraq.
- At the same time, neither the United States nor its Gulf allies have any reason to seek open confrontation with Iran. This is particularly true of the Gulf states. “Speak softly and carry a big stick” may not be an old Arab proverb, but Arab leaders have long practiced this with considerable success.
- The United States can still count on some support from allies like Britain and France, but the fact remains that it will have to rely on Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. The same forces that have made the United States and Saudi Arabia key de facto partners in Gulf security will become even more important in the future.
- Regardless of the outcome of Iraq’s effort to forge a new government, it will not become a major regional military power again for at least a decade. If the United States is to have any major strategic partner in the Gulf, it is going to be Saudi Arabia.
- As General David Petraeus and others have explained, the war against terrorism and extremism is going to be a long war, likely to go on for the next 10 to 20 years. The Gulf region is going to be one of the centers of this conflict. Al Qa’ida is not suddenly going away, and new organizations are certain to emerge. Nations like Yemen and Somalia present serious long-term risks of becoming centers of terrorist activity.
- The United States faces growing pressures to limit its military spending and commitments, and it has steadily increasing needs for regional allies with strong and interoperable forces to deter and contain regional threats and fight alongside U.S. forces if necessary.
- It may or may not be possible to move forward quickly in an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, but it is vital to minimize the tensions between our Arab allies and Israel. King Abdullah’s peace plan may differ sharply with Israel’s position, but it shows that the United States can sell arms to Saudi Arabia with minimal risk of this impacting on Israel’s security. In fact, strong U.S. security ties to Saudi Arabia offer Israel a far better alternative than Saudi Arabia turning to European or other suppliers and questioning U.S. support if it faces a crisis with Iran.
The Need for U.S.-Saudi Cooperation
At the same time, Saudi Arabia has strong incentives to maintain its security cooperation with the United States and to build up its forces to deter and defend against Iran and other potential threats. It faces the same challenges and threats, it needs a strong ally, and it faces many of the same strategic uncertainties. Moreover, there is no credible regional alternative.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has made progress, but the individual southern Gulf states have had only limited success in creating interoperable forces, integrated defense plans and command and control systems, and forces tailored to the key missions that affect deterrence and defense. They may collectively spend more than 10 times as much as Iran on military forces and arms imports, but the end results are often fragmented, showpiece forces that are symbols of national prestige and divided from each other by national rivalries.
Both the United States and Saudi Arabia actively support a broader security structure and effort to create more effective security cooperation among all of the southern Gulf states. Nevertheless, the Gulf military balance is essentially a U.S.-Iranian military balance backed by Saudi forces and with support from the other individual Gulf states. As has been the case since the fall of the Shah, Saudi Arabia is the only meaningful “pillar” in Gulf security cooperation. The Saudi Air Force is a major modern force, and the Saudi Navy is growing in capability. Saudi ground forces are capable of defending the kingdom against any Iranian infiltration and raid.
This does not mean that other southern Gulf states do not play an important, if more limited, role. Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) all play an important role in providing U.S., British, and French forces with bases and contingency capabilities. The UAE is developing advanced capabilities for its air force. All of the southern Gulf states with the exception of Qatar have significant capabilities to deter and defend themselves against Iranian action and threats, and many are beginning to acquire some elements of missile defense capability. Their capabilities are limited, however, and the progress made in U.S.-led and GCC-led common exercises has not been significant enough to tie them together into effective forces in any given mission area.
This is why U.S.-Saudi security cooperation remains critical to the overall security of the Gulf, the security of world oil exports, and the security of the Saudi Kingdom. While it is limited by the fact that any deployment of active U.S. combat forces in Saudi Arabia presents serious political problems for the kingdom, the United States does maintain a major military training mission, a training and support effort for the Saudi National Guard, and now a support mission to help Saudi Arabia develop its counterterrorism capabilities. Moreover, the United States is working with Saudi Arabia to help it become a far more modern and effective force in ensuring Gulf security, as well as the security of its borders with Yemen and the Red Sea area.
Building on a Strong Foundation
Fortunately, this is a case where both nations have a strong foundation to build upon. The United States has long been a major supplier to the GCC states and has already sold Saudi Arabia the E-2A AWACS surveillance aircraft, Sikorsky’s UH-60 Black Hawks, Raytheon-built Patriot and Hawk missile defense systems, and General Dynamics’s M1A2 tanks. It has worked with the GCC states in joint exercises and has quietly developed a high level of cooperation in counterterrorism. It has worked with the Saudi Kingdom and other Gulf states in developing counters to Iran’s steadily increasing capabilities for naval asymmetric warfare and operations against offshore and coastal targets, and it is steadily upgrading the air defense forces of many GCC state to provide missile defense capabilities.
The United States has worked with Saudi Arabia to develop long-term procurement plans that will improve the kingdom’s capabilities, limit the credibility of any Iranian threats of intimidation, help defend against terrorist or extremist attacks, and fight alongside the United States against any escalation to large-scale conflict. New U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia are part of this effort, although major additional sales are underway or planned for key states like Kuwait and the UAE. Also, the United States is working closely with Bahrain, Oman, and Qatar and has bases or contingency bases in these countries.
The U.S. Department of Defense has not yet notified Congress of all the details of a major new arms sale to Saudi Arabia, but it is clear what this sale could have a direct value well in excess of $50 billion to $60 billion and mean maintaining a de facto military partnership with Saudi Arabia for at least the next decade. In fact, it means the Saudi Air Force will remain critically dependent on U.S. military and contractor support. According to press reports from Bloomberg News and the Wall Street Journal, and work by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the sale could include:
- 84 new Boeing F-15 combat aircraft, virtually ensuring Saudi air superiority over Iran for the next decade, as well as a far higher level of interoperability with U.S. air forces. The radar equipment on these aircraft is yet to be announced, but it may give the Saudi Air Force far more capability to deal with the kind of small, dispersed target sets that match Iran’s development of dispersed elements of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and the threats posed by its focus on asymmetric warfare. Refurbishing and upgrading 70 existing Saudi F-15S strike aircraft will help achieve the same objectives.
- New air munitions, probably including air-to-surface missiles with the same precision and ability to fire from outside the range of Iranian air defenses as those used by the U.S. Air Force.
- Up to 60 AH-64D Longbow Apache attack helicopters and upgrades to 12 existing AH-64As that can be used to deal with threats in areas like the Yemeni border, defend coastal and offshore targets, and counter internal threats from any major terrorist attack.
- 72 UH-60 helicopters, in addition to the 22 UH-60s now in Saudi forces, greatly enhancing Saudi air mobility and capability to react to any major threat in the Gulf or on its borders.
- 36 “Little Bird” MH-6/AH-6 helicopters, giving Special Forces added mobility and firepower for counterterrorism and counterinfiltration missions.
- Upgrades to Saudi Arabia’s Patriot PAC 2 missile forces that will improve both air defense against any Iranian air threat and begin to give Saudi Arabia meaningful missile defense capability against a growing Iranian missile threat.
- A mix of new patrol ships like the Littoral Combat Ship and other naval weapons that will help defend Saudi coastal waters and offshore facilities and deal with the major emerging threat from the naval branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards.
Meeting the Challenge of Iran
Large as these arms transfers may seem, it is important to understand that the weapons numbers involved are relatively limited, given the overall size of forces in the Gulf. Moreover, their actual cost and size will only become clear once firm contracts are signed, and major deliveries will occur over at least a five-year period. They meet key Saudi concerns in force expansion and modernization, provide the basis for full interoperability with U.S. forces in a crisis or conflict, and give Saudi Arabia a significant “edge” in air superiority against Iran. Moreover, they given the kingdom the ability to improve the overall protection of its borders and coasts, assist in countering any serious terrorist attacks, and deal with any attacks or challenges in Yemen and the Red Sea area.
From a U.S. viewpoint, these arms transfers are part of a new post–Iraq War security structure that can secure the flow of energy exports to the global economy. They reinforce the level of regional deterrence rather than threaten it; and they help reduce the size of forces the United States must deploy or be ready to project into the region. They also help ensure the U.S. strategic position in the region at time when other powers like China are becoming key players in global energy and when recycling “petrodollars” is even more important than in the past.
Hopefully, a combination of such U.S. and Saudi efforts will create an effective deterrent and not have to be used. The United States also can never take Saudi willingness to support U.S. military operations for granted, particularly after U.S. miscalculations in Iraq. The fact remains, however, that U.S.-Saudi ties are critical to both deterrence and defense, to any effective effort to check Iran’s expanding military capabilities, and to any hope that regional security structures can advance to the point where the United States can create a far more limited and “over-the-horizon” military presence and set of contingency capabilities.
Impact on Instability in Yemen and Challenges in the Red Sea Area
The United States and Saudi Arabia now have to contend with the fact that Yemen is a horribly impoverished state with primitive infrastructure, serious water problems, and a far larger population than its drug-driven economy and limited oil exports can support. Also, Yemen has a steadily weaker government with only tenuous influence and control in many tribal areas.
The United States and Saudi Arabia now cooperate in providing both economic and security aid to Yemen The United States has sought to build up Yemeni forces and counterterrorism capabilities, has carried out drone strikes on Al Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQIP) targets, has seen AQIP train terrorists for attacks on the United States, and fears that Yemen could become the center of a new Al Qa’ida base for both regional and international operations.
Saudi Arabia not only supports counterterrorism operations in Yemen, but has had to deal with a new, low-level border war caused by strikes by a Yemeni Shi’ite rebel group called the Houthi, which some Saudi officials believe has backing from Iran. These raids across the Saudi-Yemeni border reached a crisis point in November 2009 and forced the Saudi armed forces to intervene, resulting in three months of combat and a tenuous cease-fire. This situation is further complicated by significant regional tensions between the aging government of Field Marshal Ali Abdullah Saleh in North Yemen and South Yemen, which has created a third source of low-level conflict in Yemen and could split the country.
This aspect of U.S.-Saudi cooperation seems likely to be necessary for years to come. A hostile or radicalized Yemen could be a much more serious threat to both countries, as well as to the flow of oil through the Gulf. Moreover both countries have a strong incentive—along with allies like Egypt—in ensuring the stability of the Red Sea region in the face of internal problems in Djibouti and the Sudan and continuing tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The Strait of Hormuz and Suez Cancel and Sumed pipelines, as well as the security of Saudi Arabia’s key port at Jeddah and petroleum city at Yanbu, are all key security considerations.
So also is the risk Somalia that will come under the control of a radical Islamist extremist movement called the Al Shabab, as well as the rise of Somalia piracy, which has become a major threat in the Gulf of Aden and far off the coast of Somalia and has attacked tankers and commercial shipping. It has already led to new U.S. deployments to meet both the threat of piracy and that posed by AQIP, a significant Saudi buildup in the Yemeni border area, and U.S.-Saudi cooperation in making a major effort to expand and modernize the Saudi Red Sea Fleet.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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