Can Saudi Arabia Reduce its Reliance on U.S. Military Equipment?
For fifty years, Saudi Arabia has been a major importer of US military hardware and platforms. In the face of increasing questions about the strength of the alliance and rising geopolitical tensions, is Saudi Arabia about to pivot away from US military equipment? The Red Line's Isaac Gibson explores the sources of current tensions and what the Saudi options are should they wish to reduce dependency on the US.
President Joe Biden's attempted return to pragmatism in Saudi Arabia has been met with stern recalcitrance by Riyadh's mercurial leader, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS). Since July's meeting between the two leaders, domestic pressure is growing for Riyadh and Washington to reevaluate their long-standing partnership, threatening to upend decades of strategic cooperation and fundamental regional security frameworks.
MBS's controversial efforts to modernise his father's kingdom and strengthen influence abroad have given rise to a duality of repression and incremental reform. Most recently, Biden has struggled to build a balanced yet coherent relationship with the Saudi monarchy, drawing criticism from all sides of Washington. Recent disagreements on oil production in response to the war in Ukraine and the perception of a growing Saudi hedge against America’s shifting footprint in the region have led analysts to speculate MBS is in the market for new security partners.
This was demonstrated in early 2022 after one of Saudi Arabia's largest investors, Kingdom Holding, invested $500 million into Russia's Gazprom, Rosneft, and Lukoil despite global sanctions against the Kremlin. Not surprisingly, many observers believe that U.S.-Saudi relations have reached a historical inflection point and future defence cooperation will decline in coming years. If Riyadh and Washington's breakup were to happen, how would regional security be affected, and what would it take for Saudi Arabia to decouple from U.S. military platforms?
This particular question dates back to the 1940s as the Saudis have played a crucial role in supporting U.S. foreign policy, both as a political fulcrum of the Muslim world and as a major energy supplier. Sustained by shared strategic interests, both nations have operated in lockstep to promote diplomacy and defence cooperation. A decade later in 1951, Washington and Riyadh signed the Mutual Defence Assistance Agreement to ensure long-term security and political stability for petroleum companies operating in Saudi Arabia. As the first formal defence agreement between both countries, it secured U.S. military training assistance, arms transfers, and equipment for Saudi Arabia's nascent armed forces, serving as the centerpiece in Washington's Cold War containment strategy in the Near East.
Although America's active military role in the region and support for Saudi Arabia's campaign to export Wahhabism did tip the scale against the Soviets, these policies have also hampered U.S.-Saudi relations. In the subsequent decades, the Middle East would be plagued by primordial sectarianism and human insecurity, often driving a wedge between both partners. Nevertheless, despite disagreements on Israel, a legacy of mistrust following the events of 9/11, and instances of public policy disputes within Washington's congress, U.S.-Saudi cooperation has managed to weather major geopolitical shifts.
But now, in 2022, Beijing has emerged as a major player in the region, forging significant inroads with its promises of 'no political strings attached' investment and burgeoning role as an arms exporter to the Arab world. Many analysts believe China's rising position as a near-peer competitor legitimately threatens the symbiosis of Washington and Riyadh's strategic relationship. Both countries have already established mechanisms for cooperation on Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Riyadh's Saudi Vision 2030. Moreover, to Washington's dismay, the Kingdom's ambivalence to Russia’s war in Ukraine has demonstrated a willingness for further bilateral energy cooperation with Moscow. Riyadh has refused to condemn Russia's invasion and most recently rejected demands from the EU and U.S. to stabilise oil costs through increased production.
Compounded by the political pressure from American fatigue in the Middle East, these events further call into question Washington's ability to achieve its long-term objectives. However, despite Washington's recent pivot toward the Indo-Pacific and recent geopolitical shifts, it is unlikely China or Russia intends to fulfil America’s role as the region's primary security guarantor. Nevertheless, it is worth examining Washington and Riyadh’s long-standing defensive ties to understand MBS’s future security calculus.
A Brief History
For over one hundred and fifty years, between 1820 and 1971, Britain stood as the dominant power broker in the region. Following Britain's withdrawal from the Persian Gulf, the U.S. began rapidly consolidating its use of hard power in the region, primarily through expanded arms sales to neighbouring countries. Between 1970 and 1972, Riyadh increased purchases of U.S. arms from $14.8 to $296.3 million, acting as a boon for America's defense industry.
Moreover, by the late 1970s, the broader MENA region became embroiled in interstate rivalry and the Arab-Israeli conflict, fueling a regional arms race. Military spending by the Gulf States alone had reached 13-15 per cent of their gross national product by the end of the 1970s, many of whom remain among the top ten countries globally for military spending per capita. According to one congressional study, roughly 10,000 American civil defence contractors were working in Saudi Arabia by 1978.
However, this dependence on American technology has come at a cost for Gulf partners. Countries heavily reliant on foreign technicians and weapons platforms have failed to develop indigenous military industries, a problem Saudi Arabia has only recently scrambled to solve. Conversely, Iran first established its arms development program and defence industrial base during the Iran-Iraq War to shield itself from western weapons embargoes. Alternatively, Israel began developing its defence industry shortly after the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, devoting roughly 5% of its GDP on research and development annually, now one of the world's largest weapons exporters.
As the largest partner of the U.S. Foreign Military Sales (FMS) Program during the 1960s and 1970s, Iran dominated the region’s arms race. Deemed by one U.S. congressman as "the most rapid build-up of military power under peacetime conditions of any nation in the history of the world", Iran imported $20 billion worth of arms and military hardware from the United States between 1970-78. Willing to embrace America's Twin Pillars policy in the Middle East, the Shah of Iran received heavy support through arms transfers and political backing under the Nixon Doctrine. Alongside one another, Washington saw Riyadh and Tehran’s regional leadership as crucial for halting the spread of communism throughout the region.
"Countries heavily reliant on foreign technicians and weapons platforms have failed to develop indigenous military industries, a problem Saudi Arabia has only recently scrambled to solve."
Nonetheless, everything would change after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, ushering in an enduring era of sectarian hatred and hegemonic rivalry with no sign of rapprochement. Described as the Middle Eastern Cold War, Iran and Saudi Arabia's battle for supremacy has produced a complex web of proxy relationships throughout the Middle East, with Tehran and Riyadh throwing their support behind regimes and other non-state armed groups.
The Defence of the Kingdom
Given the region's legacy of insecurity, Saudi Arabia's force structure reflects its hostile neighbourhood, confronting attacks on energy and essential infrastructure, most typically from threats to its airspace. Since the Iran-Iraq War, Saudi Arabia has prioritised air-defence capabilities by investing in aerial interception and missile defence platforms.
As the largest financial backer of Saddam’s invasion of Iran in 1980, Saudi Arabia faced frequent retaliation from Iranian Scud B missiles and F-4 Phantom fighter jets. The following year, U.S. President Ronald Reagan approved an $8.5 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia that included the transfer of 62 F-15 fighter aircraft, advanced tanks, and five Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS), providing the Royal Saudi Armed Forces with aerial surveillance and defensive air superiority against Iran. America's F-15SA and F-15 Eagle have proven fundamental to the Royal Saudi Air Force's (RSAF) fighter jet program.
Additionally, the RSAF receives frequent platform upgrades, routine maintenance support from U.S. technicians, and American-made early detection rad\ar surveillance systems, such as Raytheon's AN/TPY-2 missile defence radar and Raven Industries' Vista F25 to augment its F-15 program.
"... Iran and Saudi Arabia's battle for supremacy has produced a complex web of proxy relationships throughout the Middle East..."
However, it is important to note that Saudi Arabia does not own and operate exclusively American-made fighter craft. In addition to its F-15s, the RSAF possesses a sizeable fleet of capable Eurofighter Typhoons and British Tornado fighter jets. Following Riyadh's $5.9 billion Eurofighter deal in 2007 with Britain, MBS could look to other countries for aircraft, such as France’s Dassault Rafales or China's FC-31 stealth fighters.
In theory, while diversifying the RSAF's supply chain would mitigate the risk of political fallout with Washington, relying on too many different weapons platforms could stymie operational integration. Moreover, the United States has the largest defence industry in the world, one capable of innovating, resupplying, and maintaining weapons systems quicker than most countries. It can take years for pilots to adopt new aircraft systems, threatening to jeopardise the RSAF's near-term missions and power projection throughout the Gulf.
In addition to its Air Force, Saudi Arabia has heavily invested in American-made integrated air defence systems (IADs), most notably during the 1991 Gulf War. After purchasing variations of the American Hawk medium-range air-defence system in the 1980s, Saudi Arabia upgraded to the Patriot PAC-2 surface-to-air (SAM) defence system in 1991 to intercept Iraqi Scud ballistic missiles, marking the first combat deployment of anti-ballistic missile technology in history. Per official Saudi sources, of the 37 Iraqi missiles launched at Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War conflict, the Patriot system achieved a successful interception rate of 80%, with only one civilian reportedly killed.
Not only did Saudi Arabia's use of the PAC-2 system during the Gulf War protect the Kingdom from aerial threats, but it proved crucial in supporting the multinational coalition against Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. In the aftermath of the Gulf War conflict, Riyadh has since doubled down on its aerial interception capabilities by upgrading to America’s successor Patriot PAC-3 (MIM-104E) and recently purchased the $15 billion Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system to address evolving threats from the war in Yemen, putting its aerial defence capabilities on par with Israel, the UAE, and Egypt.
As a key player in Yemen's 8-year civil war, Saudi Arabia has now poured billions of dollars into what has become an intractable proxy conflict against Iran and one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Despite the UN-brokered truce in April of 2022, the Yemeni government and Houthis failed to extend the agreement and have resumed fighting. Faced with continued UAV and ballistic missile attacks from Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, Saudi Arabia has boxed itself into a corner with no clear exit strategy from the conflict. According to Saudi sources, Houthi rebels launched 1,204 drones and 1,207 missiles into Saudi Arabia between March 2015 and August 2019 alone. Only until the THAAD platform becomes operational in 2026 can both missile systems operate independently as a multi-layered defence structure capable of intercepting short-range and high-altitude threats. In the immediate term, Riyadh will continue depending solely on the Patriot system, which has drawbacks.
Houthi rebels have increasingly conducted attacks using low-altitude cruise missiles and UAVs which are difficult for the Patriot system’s conventional high-frequency radars to detect. Moreover, Riyadh has reportedly run low on Patriot missiles this year and may seek to bolster its air defence with other countries within reason. Although on paper, Russia's new S-400 system is a cheaper alternative capable of targeting threats at lower altitudes (10-m) as compared to the Patriot system (60-m), it remains relatively unproven in combat and would make Saudi Arabia the target of American sanctions. As required by domestic law, Countering America's Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), the U.S. administration imposes sanctions on any country conducting significant transactions with Iran, North Korea, or Russia.
Riyadh may be more likely to opt for less controversial systems like South Korea's medium-range Cheongung II KM-SAM or even Israel's Barak-8 platform. Saudi Arabia's close partner, the UAE, has already purchased both systems and the Barak-8 is capable of targeting low-flying drones and missiles. Both platforms would allow Riyadh to augment its defence structure and convey to partners it isn’t beholden to American-made technology without ruffling too many feathers.
The Future of the Friendship
For more reasons than not, abruptly severing security cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. would not be in the interests of either country. Disentangling Saudi ties to American technology poses several large logistical challenges for the Kingdom. If MBS were to cut security cooperation with the U.S. altogether, Saudi Arabia would have to immediately supplement nearly 80 per cent of its current arms imports.
Although Beijing has recently positioned itself as a viable alternative by marketing air-defence systems, multi-type drones, fighter aircraft, and even promising to help develop entire defence industry value chains, China's investment strategy principled on neutrality with states like Iran could alternatively encourage Riyadh to keep Washington as its fundamental security guarantor. Countering Iran’s regional sphere of influence remains paramount for MBS’s national security strategy, so growing its security ties with any of Iran’s counterparts could backfire in the long term.
Even as relations sit at a new nadir, long-term joint military planning between U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and Saudi Arabia has continued, such as the Red Sands Integrated Experimentation Center and other anticipated exchange programs. Furthermore, the Saudi defence ministry voiced its support for a reorganisation of the U.S. Military Training Mission (USMTM) in Riyadh earlier this year. While the U.S.-Saudi relationship has reached a low point, security initiatives like these can be the impetus for renewed dialogue and reconciliation between both partners.
Written by Isaac Gibson.
Edited by Wade McCagh.