RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, June 27 (UPI) -- A massive defense plan by the Arab states of the Persian Gulf to counter Iran got a big boost with last week's award of a $1.7 billion contract to the Raytheon Co. to upgrade Saudi Arabia's Patriot air-defense systems to the advanced PAC-3 configuration.
The kingdom's Air Defense Forces include 16 batteries of PAC-2 Patriots, totaling 96 missiles, plus 16 batteries of 128 MIM-23B I-Hawk missiles that are also manufactured by Raytheon, plus some French systems.
The United Arab Emirates is expected to take delivery of four Patriot MIM-104 PAC-3 air-defense missile batteries in the coming months, part of its drive to reinforce its defensive capabilities.
Kuwait has plans for a $900 million upgrade for its five batteries of U.S.-supplied Patriot PAC-2 missiles.
"The volume of arms imported by the United Arab Emirates has increased significantly in the past decade and the country is likely to remain a major arms importer in the coming years," the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported recently.
The emirates federation is expected to conclude a $7 billion deal for three Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-ballistic missile systems in the coming months. Lockheed Martin Space Systems is the prime contractor.
Iran has accelerated its efforts to develop a long-range ballistic missile, despite tough international sanctions imposed a year ago, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported recently, citing an unpublished report by U.N. experts.
At the same time, The Jerusalem Post quoted another U.N. report as saying Iran conducted unannounced test-firings of two of its most advanced missiles, the Shibah-3b and the Sejjil-1, in February.
These accounts coincide with a third U.N. report, by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, dated May 24 that indicated the Iranians may be close to producing a nuclear warhead that could be carried by their intermediate-range ballistic weapons.
The Middle East market for military aircraft and air-defense systems alone, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the emirates, is expected to generate revenues of nearly $63 billion by 2020, a new study says.
The analysis by Texas-based defense consultants Frost & Sullivan, "The Middle East Air Market -- Revenue Opportunities and Stakeholder Mapping," estimates that the military air procurement in the region will surge in 2011-2015 and reach $3.96 billion in 2020.
All told, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and the four other member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council – Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain – are due to spend $122 billion on both offensive and defensive weapons systems over the next decade to counter an emboldened Iran.
"The Arab states of the gulf have embarked on a one of the largest rearmament exercises in peacetime history … to counter Iran's power," the Financial Times observed.
Despite political differences between the United States and Saudi Arabia that have strained their 67-year strategic alliance, Riyadh remains locked into the Americans on defense.
The kingdom is expected to spend around $67 billion on U.S. arms -- including 84 Boeing F-15SA strike jets and upgrading 70 more already in Saudi service -- over the next decade.
The Saudis are expected to start taking delivery of the new F-15s in about three years.
The vast arms package for Saudi Arabia looks set to grow to unprecedented levels in the months ahead, setting in motion a buildup of Arab power in the gulf on a scale never seen before, one that could bring far-reaching changes.
The U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified Congress May 24 that a $100 million package military sale to the United Arab Emirates was in the works involving support and maintenance for its fleet of 80 Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon attack aircraft.
The emirates' air force, with 184 combat aircraft, is considered the top air component in the Gulf Cooperation Council's combined military force.
Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states in the gulf have more than tripled their acquisition of U.S. weaponry over the last five years to build up their defenses against Iran.
The main threat is the growing arsenal of ballistic missiles that Iran is amassing.
The Arab states strung along the western shore of the gulf, particularly the U.S. military bases these contain and their extensive and highly vulnerable strategic oil and gas infrastructure are within easy range of Iran's missile inventory.