Saudi Arabia’s Military Capabilities

Photo: Sgt Amanda Campbell

With Saudi Arabia appearing on page one news for several days in a row and with their connections to at least some of the unrest in the Middle East, a brief look at the nation’s military strength is in order.

According to Global Firepower, the Saudi Royal Family (aka Saudii Arabia) is ranked as 24th out of 133 nations in the Global Firepower database just behind North Korea at number 23 and ahead of Algeria at number 25 and behind Iran, their greatest foe in the region, as shown on this listing:

This ranking relies on over 50 factors that determine a nation’s “PowerIndex”, a measure that allows smaller but more technologically advanced nations to compete with larger, less developed nations.  The PowerIndex ranking does not just look at the number of weapons that are available to any given nation but focusses on diversity of weaponry, a measure that provides a nation with a better balance of firepower against a foe.  Rankings are influenced by the following:

1.) nuclear powers get a bonus but non-nuclear powers are not penalized

2.) available manpower is a key consideration

3.) geographic factors including natural resources, local industry and logistical flexibility are important.

4.) NATO allies receive a slight bonus since they can share materiel.

Let’s look at the key factors that influenced Saudi Arabia’s final score:

1.) Manpower – Saudi Arabia has a total population of 28.160 million with 14,000,000 of those deemed “fit for service” and 510,000 of this reaching military age.  In total, the Saudi’s have a military force of 256,000 personnel of which 231,000 are active and 25,000 are reservists.  Of the 28 million people living in Saudi Arabia, approximately 30 percent are non-Saudi.

2.) Air Power – In total, Saudi Arabia has 790 military aircraft as follows:

Fighter Aircraft – 177

Attack Aircraft – 245

Transport Aircraft – 221

Trainer Aircraft – 243

Total Helicopters – 227

Attack Helicopters – 21

3.) Army Power – The Saudi Army has the following equipment at its disposal:

Combat Tanks – 1142

Armoured Fighting Vehicles – 5472

Self-Propelled Artillery – 524

Towed Artillery – 432

Rocket Launchers – 322

3.) Naval Power – In total, the Saudi Navy has 55 assets as follows:

Frigates – 7

Corvettes – 4

Patrol Craft – 11

Mine Warfare Vessels – 3

While this firepower may seem rather modest, as shown here, Saudi Arabia has the world’s third largest defense budget, well ahead of all other nations in the Middle East:

According to a recent Congressional Research Service publication entitled “Saudi Arabia: Background and U.S. Relations“, Saudi Arabia has relied on U.S. arms sales, training and service for several decades, giving the nation a military advantage over its neighbours and helping to drive a regional arms race.  During a May 2017 visit to Riyadh, President Donald Trump announced proposed arms sales worth more than $110 billion as follows:

1.) A Letter of Offer and Acceptance for four Littoral Combat Ships  

2.) A Letter of Offer and Acceptance for 115 M1A2S tanks made by General Dynamics Corp., as well as munitions, and heavy equipment recovery systems 

3.) A Letter of Offer and Acceptance for PAC-3 Patriot missiles

4.) A Letter of Offer and Acceptance for UH-60 Helicopters

5.) A Letter of Offer and Acceptance for CH-47 Chinook Helicopters 

6.) A memorandum of intent for a $18 billion program to upgrade Saudi Arabia’s military command-and-control and defense communications infrastructure  

7.) A memorandum of intent for a potential sale of the THAAD Anti-Missile System  

8.) A proposed FMS sale to further improve the training and capacity of the Royal Saudi Air Force to include enhanced training on precision targeting capabilities, processes, and Law of Armed Conflict 

9.) formal notification of Congress of three proposed direct commercial sales of precision-guided munitions technology

In addition, Lockheed Martin announced plans to produce 150 Blackhawk attack helicopters in Saudi Arabia through a joint venture and Raytheon announced plans to establish a Saudi-based subsidiary for defense production and services.

Looking back in time, we find the following proposed U.S. military sales to Saudi Arabia totalling over $121 billion since fiscal 2009 (excluding the most recent proposals in May 2017):

While the Saudi’s do not currently have nuclear weapon capabilities, it is not out of the question in the future as seen in this quote from Saudi Arabia’s former Ambassador to the United States when addressing the issue of a nuclear Iran:

In a speech I gave 4 years ago in the kingdom and subsequently reiterated, I said that should Iran acquire nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) must look at all the available options to meet the potential threat that will come from Iran–including the acquisition of nuclear weapons. 

I don’t think we should close the door to ourselves before we see what is going to happen with Iran. And if that means that we go to develop nuclear weapons, then that is a choice that will have to be made by the GCC leadership, as I recommend, to meet that challenge. But there isn’t going to be any buying of Pakistani or whatever source of weapons in that field. No country will sell, first of all.  

Secondly, you can’t simply just buy it off the shelf and say, “OK, I’m going to bring this nuclear weapon.” Where are you going to put it? Who’s going to deal with it? Who’s going to handle it? Who’s going to protect it, etc.? You need a whole complex infrastructure to service nuclear weapons. So it’s not just simply buying from Pakistan. And that’s never been considered an option in the kingdom, despite what American and European reporters have said or written.” (my bold)

Like Israel, some Saudis are advocating for “nuclear ambiguity” at the same time as they desire nuclear parity with Iran; any moves toward ambiguity would make it impossible for the outside world to determine their nuclear readiness, adding even more geopolitical stress to the region.  As well, the fact that Saudi Arabia is planning to develop as many as 16 nuclear power plants by 2040 in order to reduce their consumption of oil and natural gas would certainly give them the technology that would be needed to implement a nuclearization of their armed forces.

Since it is most likely that any larger scale hostilities in the region would be between Iran and Saudi Arabia, you can find my musings on Iran’s military capabilities here.  In any case, the involvement of the United States on the pro-Saudi side of any conflict is a given, particularly when one looks at the long-term relationship between the Saudi Royal Family and Washington.

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