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Saudi Arabia: When a Fighter Upgrade is Not an Upgrade

Source: Stratfor
Stratfor's Free Intelligence Reports

September 07, 2007 16 22 GMT


Saudi Arabia is expected to formally sign a contract for the purchase of 72 Eurofighter Typhoons the week of Sept. 9. Riyadh's continued focus on the latest equipment bodes ill for wider military reform in the kingdom.


Saudi King Abdullah is expected to sign a contract for the delivery of 72 Eurofighter Typhoons during the week of Sept. 9 in a deal worth $40 billion. The deal with BAE Systems was widely expected after the cancellation of an investigation into allegations that the firm bribed Saudi officials. But while this is exceptional news for BAE (this sale alone is nearly double BAE's 2006 sales) and the Eurofighter consortium, the deal bodes ill for the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF).

The RSAF operates the best fighter aircraft in the region -- more and newer F-15s than even the Israeli air force. However -- and this goes for the Saudi military as a whole -- there are serious qualitative concerns about manpower.

Little more than a generation ago, the Saudi military was primarily a force of tribal conscripts. Much progress has been made since then; nevertheless, the Saudi military has become a hollow shell composed of the very best military hardware money can buy. This is symptomatic of how the senior Saudi military leadership -- appointed more because of political loyalty and royal ties than anything else -- sees defense. The kingdom has the money for the glamour and glitter of the latest equipment, but not the patience for the gritty work of managing personnel, training and maintenance.

Thus, despite how modern the Saudi military's frontline equipment is, much of it is poorly maintained -- a problem compounded by continued Saudi attempts to maintain a diverse holding of foreign equipment and avoid complete reliance on U.S. hardware. Meanwhile, significant personnel shortages and morale problems across the board leave little room for operational training or experience.

The RSAF is perhaps the most illustrative of this dynamic. Pilot trainees are increasingly educated and motivated, but the frustrations of training in a second language and a lack of consistent curriculum leave many disillusioned even before they are assigned to operational squadrons. There is no more telling evidence of this than RSAF pilots' general lack of interest in flight time. The average Saudi pilot, while generally able to operate his aircraft, is not capable of reliably and consistently conducting complex maneuvers.

And this is the salient point about the Typhoon buy. Whatever superior capabilities Eurofighter might claim its Typhoon offers over Saudi F-15s, the upgrade is a marginal one, especially given that the RSAF's problem is not one of equipment. Investing in RSAF's pilots' ability to operate proficiently the planes they already have would go a lot further toward shifting the military dynamic in the region than simply purchasing another 72 aircraft.

New equipment acquisitions put strain on these very weaknesses; conversion stretches personnel, training and maintenance infrastructure far more than it dents the seemingly bottomless Saudi pocketbook. Thus, the Typhoon purchase is not just harmless Saudi excess but is also counterproductive for the RSAF. As a benchmark of progress in addressing recognized personnel and maintenance issues, the Typhoon purchase suggests that nothing has really changed in the Saudi military. This deficiency is going to become even more apparent as Saudi Arabia is forced to deal with the major shifts taking place in Iraq and the wider Persian Gulf

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