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Arabs plan $63 billion air power buildup

Oct. 4, 2011 at 1:05 PM   |   Comments

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, Oct. 4 (UPI) -- Middle Eastern states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are focusing on building up their power and air-defense capabilities, a military air market expected to generate $62.9 billion over the current decade.

This concentration on procuring military aviation assets is presumably linked to current force upgrades by the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council to counter an expansionist Iran the Arabs say is determined to acquire nuclear weapons.

This concern has been a boon for U.S. and European defense contractors who are faced with major cutbacks in military spending to supply the GCC states with the advanced systems they seek, even some that Washington had been reluctant to provide Arab states.

A recent analysis by Frost and Sullivan, a leading growth strategies consultancy, said that a procurement surge in 2011-15 "highlights ongoing big-ticket purchases, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates."

These are GCC military heavyweights and both have built up strong air forces, primarily to meet the threat from Iran.

These air arms are increasingly focusing on offensive, rather than purely defensive, operations, largely aimed at taking out Iranian missile launch sites and strategic command centers.

The composition of the massive U.S. arms package worth some $67 billion, largely for the GCC states, unveiled in 2007, emphasizes the focus by the Saudis and the Emirates on bolstering air power while acquiring theater ballistic missiles that can threaten Iran's missile forces, its main military strike capability and its command centers.

The package includes the first-phase sale of 84 new Boeing F-15 strike jets to Saudi Arabia to replace the kingdom's older F-15 air-defense variants, plus upgrades for 70 F-15 jets already in service.

The second phase involves the delivery of 72 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, the U.S. Army's main anti-tank helicopter, along with 70 Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopters.

The third segment consists of upgrades for the Saudis' Raytheon-built Patriot Advanced Capability-2 air-defense missiles.

The Emirates is expected to soon finalize a $7 billion deal with Lockheed Martin for the high-altitude THAAD system, including 147 missiles. That would be the first foreign sale of THAAD, underling the U.S. commitment to establish a Persian Gulf-wide shield against Iranian ballistic missiles.

Discussions are under way for a similar sale to Saudi Arabia. Washington is urging the Saudis to upgrade their 16 Patriot Advanced Capability-2 batteries, which have 96 missiles, to PAC-3 standard.

"In the area of Theater Ballistic Missiles, GCC states clearly have a disadvantage," veteran analysts Anthony H. Cordesman and Abdullah Toukan wrote in an August 2009 study for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"The challenge for the GCC states is to design an effective multilayered Ballistic Missile Defense System to counter the full range of ballistic missiles."

The Frost and Sullivan report, "The Middle East Air Market -- Revenue Opportunities and Stakeholder Mapping," concluded that procurement of air assets has been spurred by the recognition that advanced air platforms are force multipliers.

"The GCC countries are moving toward an integrated air-defense network to include air platforms, air-defense batteries and air surveillance systems under the Peninsula Shield initiative but the progress has been slow," the report observed.

Peninsula Shield is the GCC's collective military force established in 1984, when the alliance was formed during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

But it remains underdeveloped because of rivalries among the ruling families of the gulf monarchies.

The smaller GCC states, such as Oman, Qatar and Bahrain, resent Saudi domination of the alliance and the Peninsula Shield force, which has a current strength of 40,000 and is based at King Khaled Military City near Hafr al-Batin in Saudi Arabia.

The United Arab Emirates have been pressing for a gulf-wide air defense network for more than a decade but a lack of coordination has meant progress has been patchy at best.

"Political influence weighs heavily in defense acquisition decisions" in the GCC states," the report noted. "As a result, most new procurement is being sourced from the United States under Foreign Military Sales."

Although the Americans dominate the GCC military market, "there have been efforts to balance this relationship through procurement from elsewhere, including from Europe and Russia."

Britain and France are the primary European arms suppliers to the GCC.

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