Published in the Middle East Feb/Mar 2021 Supplement – The expansion of GCC Air Power has been rapid and in no small measure driven by region rivalry with Iran.
In recent years, the air forces of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) nations (the Kingdoms of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, the States of Kuwait and Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and the Sultanate of Oman) have undergone major modernisation and expansion programmes. Though the scale and pace of this process has increased markedly in recent years, it is more deep-rooted than is sometimes supposed. The process dates back to before Operation Desert Storm (1990-91), though it accelerated significantly about ten years ago, following the so-called US “Pivot to Asia” pursued by the Obama administration, and with the associated publication of Hilary Clinton’s ‘America’s Pacific Century.’
It became increasingly clear that although the US would remain engaged in the region, its allies in the Middle East would be expected to shoulder a greater share of the burden of defending themselves, supporting and co-operating with deployed US, British and French forces rather than substantially relying on these foreign elements. This added impetus to the drive to achieve greater interoperability with US forces, ensuring that new military installations were built to US and NATO specifications, and that personnel were trained to operate alongside allied forces. GCC air forces increasingly began to train with air arms from outside the Gulf – sometimes hosting exercises such as the UAE’s Advanced Tactical Leadership Course (ATLC), and sometimes deploying to exercise overseas. The Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF), for example, participated in the Red Flag exercise in the USA, and in exercises in the United Kingdom and France.
At much the same time, some of the larger GCC nations embraced a more outward-looking stance, and adopted a greater willingness to operate on the international stage. Sometimes this meant using national wealth to support humanitarian assistance to other nations (especially other Muslim nations) – and this drove Qatar’s acquisition of the Boeing C-17 Globemaster, for example. Sometimes this new more international outlook resulted in GCC members participating in combat operations as part of an international coalition. The UAE beginning a rotational deployment in Afghanistan from 2007, and just four years later, both the UAE and Qatar deployed fast jet aircraft to participate in the NATO-led intervention in Libya.
GCC air forces demonstrated their readiness to operate under US command, as part of an international coalition from 22 September 2014, when Saudi, Emirati, Qatari, Jordanian and Bahraini fast jets joined US aircraft in air strikes against Daesh targets in Syria, and were themselves later augmented by Moroccan General Dynamics F-16s.
Rivalry With Iranian
For Saudi Arabia, growing rivalry with the Islamic Republic of Iran was a major concern, especially after a multi-sided civil war began in Yemen on its southern border in late 2014, with Iran supporting and arming the Houthi rebels.
Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran go back many years, based in part on the rivalry between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam, and on competition between the two for leadership of the Islamic World, as well as the very different forms of government – one an absolute monarchy, the other a theocratic Republic. These tensions are exacerbated by their very different relationships with the US and their attitudes to its influence over, and presence in, the Gulf region. The two Islamic powers even differ in their approach to oil pricing, with Saudi Arabia taking a longer-term view of the global oil market with a willingness to moderate prices, while Iran, with much smaller reserves and a larger population, tends to focus on high prices in the shorter term.
Saudi Arabia’s concerns about Iran grew as Iran attempted to spread its influence, funding and training insurgent groups in Lebanon, Syria and post-Saddam Iraq, and as Iran intensified its efforts to build up its own nuclear arsenal.
In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic relations with Qatar, citing Qatar’s supposed “embrace of various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilising the region”, but also motivated by rivalry between these major oil and natural gas producers and by Qatar’s relations with Iran (they share the world’s biggest natural gas field). Relations are now being restored.
The Yemeni civil war has dragged on, however, and Saudi Arabia and its allies (including Sudan and Egypt) have continued to mount airstrikes against Houthi targets, with inevitable collateral damage to Yemeni civilians and civilian infrastructure provoking widespread condemnation.
State-owned Saudi Aramco oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais in eastern Saudi Arabia came under attack by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) on 14 September 2019. The Houthi movement in Yemen claimed responsibility, but direct Iranian involvement was widely suspected.
The need to deter and counter the Iranian threat has been a significant factor behind ongoing efforts by GCC air arms to modernise and expand.
Air Power Expansion
Even 30 years ago, one GCC air force was operating at significant scale, and was beginning to reduce its reliance on expatriate personnel. According to the US Air Force’s official Gulf War Air Power Survey, the RSAF flew more sorties than any other non-US coalition air arm during Operation Desert Storm (5,829 of them), and was the only non-US partner air force to score an air-to-air ‘kill’ during the conflict.
The Douglas A-4 Skyhawks and Dassault Mirage F1s that fled in the face of Iraq’s invasion also allowed the ‘Free Kuwait Air Force’ to fly 780 interdiction sorties (more than the French Armée de l’Air, for example), but generally, the GCC air forces were too small to play a leading part in the Allied air campaign, and the GCC nations’ most important contribution was in providing bases for US, British and other allied aircraft.
Even before Iraq invaded Kuwait, Arab air forces were embarking on modernisation programmes. Saudi Arabia had introduced McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) F-15 Eagle interceptors and British-supplied Panavia Tornados, Kuwait had already ordered some 40 McDonnell Douglas (Boeing) Hornets (32 single-seat F/A-18Cs and eight two-seat F/A-18Ds), and Bahrain had started to receive the first of 22 General Dynamics (now Lockheed Martin) F-16C/Ds, while the UAE was looking at options for a new fighter to augment its Mirage 2000s. Oman replaced its ageing Hawker Hunters with new BAE Hawks in the mid-1990s, and ordered F-16s in 2005, while Qatar replaced 14 Dassault Mirage F1s with 12 Mirage 2000s from 1997.
Arguably more significant than the delivery of ‘teen series’ fighters to GCC air forces was the US decision to supply more advanced weapons, including Raytheon GBU-10/12 laser guided bombs, AGM-65D/G Maverick air-to-ground missiles and above all, the AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missile, which gave the new generation of warplanes a real long-range punch that had previously been lacking. The US was initially resistant to the idea of introducing this capability into the region, in part to limit proliferation of this advanced technology but also to try to allow Israel to maintain a (Congressionally mandated) ‘Qualitative Military Edge’ (QME) over its neighbours.
The US rationale for maintaining this QME is to support what it regards as a reliable and democratic ally, compensating for Israel’s smaller size and population than its potential adversaries. It also allows the US to use Israel to advance its geostrategic goals without the need to deploy additional US military forces. Israel has been used as a cost-effective, trustworthy, battle-hardened, force-multiplier and as a useful laboratory for US defence equipment, technology and tactics.
Eventually, in November 1999 Bahrain was given permission to procure AIM-120B Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles for its F-16 fighters, becoming the first Gulf Arab country to acquire these advanced missiles. The then-defense secretary William Cohen also promised to sell the AIM-120 to Saudi Arabia.
By the turn of the Millennium, it was clear that the ‘teen’-series fighters equipping GCC fighter arms would soon be rendered obsolescent – increasingly unable to guarantee success against developed versions of the Sukhoi Su-27 ‘Flanker’ (then viewed as the baseline threat), and by the new generation of fighters exemplified by the Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale and Saab Gripen.
After evaluating the Rafale, the UAE opted instead to acquire a new, bespoke derivative of the F-16, equipped with a new Northrop Grumman AN/APG-80 AESA radar, an internal FLIR and a state of the art electronic warfare suite. The Block 60 F-16E/F Desert Falcon was the most advanced F-16 variant ever produced, and was more capable than any USAF version. It also represented the most advanced fighter aircraft in the GCC. The F-16s augmented the UAE’s Mirage 2000s, rather than replacing these, and effectively doubled the UAE’s fighter force at a stroke. The UAE announced the purchase of 55 single-seat F-16Es and 25 two-seat F-16Fs in May 1998, and deliveries began in 2004. Subsequent efforts to acquire further advanced fighters saw the announcement of deals for the Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon and Block 61 F-16s, but none were concluded. Most recently, the UAE appeared to have acquired the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning Joint Strike Fighter – if ITAR and Israeli QME concerns can be overcome, as well as a pause of sale initiated by President Biden’s administration.
In Saudi Arabia, the RSAF announced its intention to purchase the Eurofighter Typhoon from BAE Systems in December 2005, subsequently signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for 72 aircraft in 2006. In December 2011, Saudi Arabia signed a $29.4 billion deal for 84 Boeing F-15SA (Saudi Advanced) aircraft, with 70 existing F-15S fighter bombers to be converted to the same standard. Though there have been persistent rumours of a further Typhoon order, and though an MoI for 48 further aircraft has reportedly been signed, a contract remains stubbornly just out of BAE’s reach!
In Oman, by contrast, the original batch of 12 F-16C/Ds were augmented by 12 further aircraft after a second contract was signed in December 2011, and one year later, a contract was signed for 12 Eurofighter Typhoons. But whereas the Saudi Typhoon armament package included the Diehl BGT Defence IRIS-T IR-homing AAM, the Omani aircraft was armed with the BAE ASRAAM – arguably the most capable close-range missile exported to the region. This was because when Saudi Arabia signed up for Typhoon the only option was the ASRAAM Block 4 (which used a seeker that was subject to ITAR restrictions) whereas Oman (and now Qatar) have bought the ASRAAM Block 6, which uses an MBDA-made (non ITAR) seeker.
Kuwait ordered 28 Typhoons (six of them two-seaters) in April 2016, and will arm its aircraft with the IRIS-T missile. These aircraft will be the first Typhoons equipped with a production AESA radar, and the first fighters in the region with a new generation AESA with a repositioner. The 28 Typhoons will be augmented by 22 F/A-18Es and six twin-seat F/A-18Fs, all being delivered to a standard close to the US Navy’s new Block III version, with an Elbit Systems wide-area cockpit display. The 56 Typhoons and Super Hornets will replace the survivors of 40 ‘Heritage’ Hornets, marking a small but significant expansion.
Qatar’s air power expansion was, by contrast, anything but modest. The Qatar Emiri Air Force had operated a single fighter squadron equipped with 12 Dassault Mirage 2000-5s, but ordered 24 Dassault Rafale fighters in May 2015, 24 F-15QAs (plus an option for 12 more), in November 2016 and 24 Eurofighter Typhoons in September 2017. The QEAF ordered 12 additional Rafales in December 2017, with an option for 36 more! The expansion of the QEAF fighter element from 12 to 84 aircraft was an unparalleled step, and necessitated a huge investment in both training and infrastructure.
Bahrain, whose acquisition of the AIM-120 AMRAAM triggered the latest round of air power modernisation sought a new fighter for many years, but was limited by budgetary constraints. The sale of 19 new Block 70 F-16s was first approved by the US State Department in 2016 but was delayed as a result of the Obama administration’s human rights concerns. Incoming President Donald Trump dropped the human rights conditions that Obama had imposed and in June 2018 a contract was signed for the sale of 16 new-build Block 70 F-16Vs, accompanied by the upgrade of Bahrain’s existing fleet of 20 F-16C/Ds to the F-16V Viper configuration.
Though we have highlighted the expansion and modernisation of GCC fighter forces, there has been similar progress in the fielding of new and more capable intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), airborne early warning (AEW), tanker and airlift capabilities, and with the introduction of larger numbers of more sophisticated and more modern helicopters. Moreover, the modernisation and expansion of GCC air power continues at pace, and the region is becoming increasingly self sufficient and independent of the US. The biggest ‘gap’ is now in the ‘infrastructure’ of air power – especially on a supranational level, with no real co-ordinated and integrated air defence and command and control network at above national level.
by Jon Lake