Records, they say, are meant to be beaten. Those who had characterized India’s acquisition of 126 combat aircraft for around $10 billion, billed as the largest ever single military purchase, as the “mother of all arms deals” will have to change terminology. Last week, the US announced it had clinched a deal with Saudi Arabia for sale of F-15 fighters and upgradation of the current Saudi F-15 fleet for a combined value of about $30 billion. Clearly the grandmother of all deals!
Almost simultaneously, the US also announced the first-ever overseas sale of its THAAD (Terminal formerly Theatre High Altitude Area Defence) ballistic missile defence system to the UAE. The $3.5 billion value is dwarfed by the Saudi deal but is no less weighty given the advanced technology involved and the strategic significance of the US-UAE arrangement.
Media commentary, primed by US Defence Department and Pentagon briefings and dominated by Western press agency releases, carried an almost uniform narrative. These deals were aimed squarely at sending a strong message to Iran, the timing being especially apt against the background of Iranian naval and missile exercises in the Persian Gulf and supposed threats to close the Straits of Hormuz, and at equipping other states in the littoral who were increasingly anxious about growing Iranian missile and nascent nuclear capability. A deeper analysis would, however, show that while this story line has been spun to resonate with contemporary issues, the real picture is a more complex one of a long-standing US security calculus unfolding in the context of recent developments, not only in the Persian Gulf and wider West Asia region but also domestically in the US. The US press statements have also pointedly underlined the commercial value of the deals and the boost they would give to US manufacturing industry and employment, a resonance avidly promoted by a beleaguered Obama administration
The F-15SAs come bristling with advanced weaponry. For aerial combat, the aircraft will have AIM 9X Sidewinder short-range heat-seeking air-to-air missiles and AIM 120 C7 “AMRAAM” (advanced medium range air to air missile) “fire-and-forget” missiles deigned to target beyond-visual-range targets. For ground attack, the F-15SAs will carry 500 pound laser-guided munitions, 2000 pound Paveway III laser-guided bombs, wind-corrected munitions dispensers, AGM-88B high-speed anti-radiation missiles to detect and strike ground-based radars and transmitters such as on anti-aircraft or missile batteries, as well as well as AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missiles. Apart from the AESA radars, the F-15SAs would be equipped with LANTIRN (Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night) combined navigation and targeting pods enabling low-altitude, night-flight ground attack with precision-guided weapons, and with Sniper Advanced Targeting Pods for the precision-guided weapons.
With this acquisition, Saudi Arabia will have arguably the most advanced and well-equipped air force in the region other than Israel. The RSAF already operates the third largest fleet of F-15s after the US and Japan. Apart from the Tornados of the British-led consortium inducted in the mid-eighties, the Saudis in an obvious effort to diversify from over-dependence on the US and also spread its petro-dollars around other Western suppliers, had acquired 72 Eurofighters a few years ago, a deal which earned a great deal of notoriety for the kickbacks and slush money involved, and which had also embroiled the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Strategic imperatives For the past few years, there had been speculation about whether the Saudis, known to be in the market, would once again buy European rather than US combat aircraft, either as a deliberate choice or as a result of a growing unease in Washington with the Saudi regime. The US had been unhappy with what it perceived as inadequate Saudi efforts to tackle jihadist radicalism both within its country and in other countries receiving generous support from Saudi patrons. On its part, the Saudis were upset with increasingly vocal US criticism of conservative regimes in West Asia and shrill support for democracy movements. Then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had famously remarked in 2005 that the US had for over 50 years favoured stability over democracy in the region, and had achieved neither. Saudi Arabia was particularly disturbed by the US abandonment of its faithful ally of over three decades, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.
However, several developments seem to have prompted somewhat of a reversal of this trend. The winding down of the US military presence in Iraq and the perceived strengthening of forces in the region that Saudi Arabia considered inimical to its interests, such as in Lebanon and Syria with support from Iran, caused anxiety in Saudi ruling circles. The “Arab spring” uprisings in several North African and West Asian countries were also viewed with considerable dismay by Saudi Arabia which supported a vicious crack-down by US ally Bahrain which was watched with studied silence by the US. And there was always the Saudi disquiet with Iranian efforts at spreading its regional influence and acquiring greater military and strategic clout through missile and nuclear technology. All these factors including equally impelled the US into once again warming up its strategic relations with Saudi Arabia and with other allies in the region. The economic woes of the US and its dire need to bolster its economy especially with elections approaching only added to the impetus.
When Saudi Arabia had requested a new set of military hardware from the US Defence Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) in December 2010, there was considerable doubt if the deals would go through and many questions were raised in Congress. But go through it did, and in a big way.
The F-15 deal is part of a much larger shopping list worth around $60 billion. Saudi Arabia is looking to buy Apache attack helicopters, other helicopters, a major upgrade of its Patriot anti-missile system, armoured vehicles and so on.
US security presence enhanced The US has also ramped up its arms sales to other countries in the region. An Iraqi deal worth around $4 billion to buy F-16s, aerial defence systems and other hardware is in the pipeline, as is a deal to sell additional F-16s to Egypt.
Another major recent deal has been the sale of anti-missile systems to the UAE. The UAE deal follows a $1.7 billion contract earlier in the year to upgrade Saudi Arabia’s Patriot anti-missile system, and the sale of over 200 advanced Patriot missiles to Kuwait for around $1 billion.
The UAE sale is however strategically more significant. It is the first export sale of the THAAD anti-missile batteries system and underlines the importance Washington attaches to this Gulf ally and to US security interests in the region. The THAAD system enables interception of medium-range missiles towards the latter part of their trajectory wither inside or outside the atmosphere, and therefore have a far greater defensive potential than the Patriot type systems which seek to counter shorter-range missiles. West Asia is one of the regions where the US has been able to place its land-based anti-missile systems, whereas Japan and South Korea have acquired more advanced ship-based systems and the US has faced problems in Europe due to unease in those countries with hosting missiles and inviting Russian ire. Whereas the systems sold to the UAE are independent land-based systems, they are also compatible with and will be fully supported by the US Aegis ship-based anti-missile systems now permanently stationed in the Persian Gulf. The UAE deal is thus more than a sale: it physically ties up regional security installations with the US security infrastructure and provides greater strategic reach to US forces in the Gulf. For all the specifics of the current situation vis-à-vis Iran, these recent US arms deals are thus solid pointers to the US security presence seeking greater depth and more permanence in the wider West Asia region.