Editor’s Bunker Briefing: World Defense Show After-action Report 21 February 2023 (No.85)

The Saudi Hawks
The Saudi Hawks, the Royal Saudi Air Force display team, preforms during the World Defense Show, Riyadh (4-8 February 2024). (U.S. Air Force)

Dear Readers,

In February I visited the 2nd World Defense Show (4-8 February, 2024), in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. I visited the first one in 2022 which in itself was impressive, having been build in the desert 70 kilometres north of Riyadh from virtually nothing.

During the first WDS the weather was unhelpful, with high winds blowing sand and bust which meant the air display could only occur on the last day. No such problem this year with the Saudi Hawks of the Royal Saudi Air Force, the Ba Yi Aerobatic Team flying J-10 jets from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and displays by the Eurofighter Typhoon, the French Dassault Rafale C, and a pair of F-15s.

Having dropped its objection to selling more Eurofighter Typhoons to the Kingdom, Germany cleared the way for more detailed negotiations to begin with the Saudi Ministry of Defence. A second tranche of 48 aircraft are required by the Kingdom (they already have 70+ Typhoons), with Dassault’s Rafale seemingly the only other contender.

Coincidentally Royal Air Force Typhoons, together with Boeing F-15s, Lockheed Martin F-16s and Chengdu J-17s among others the air forces of Bahrain, Greece, Jordan, Pakistan, Qatar, the USA, Kuwait, and the UAE, began the multinational Exercise Spears of Victory from the King Abdulaziz Air Base as WDS ended. The exercise concluded on 15 February.


“The soldier is the Army. No army is better than its soldiers.” – George S. Patton

Saudi Defence Industry Transformation – Working Towards 2030

CEO of Saudi Arabian Military Industries
Walid Abdulmajid Abukhaled is the CEO of Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI). He presented a keynote at the Future Defense Forum. (Author)

Virtually all the industry discussion revolved around Memoranda of Understandings (MoUs), Joint Ventures (JVs) and the search for third party suppliers as the Kingdom races to ramp up its national defence industry to meet the national ambition of Vision 2030, the localisation of 50 percent of national defence spending by that date. Whether this target will be hit is a matter of conjecture, and how it will actually be measured is yet to be fully understood. The Kingdom is likely to announce success, as all such ventures do in the Gulf, whatever the final assessment.

Talking about the progress made and development of the Saudi defence industry during the Future Defense Leadership Forum on 5th February, Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI) CEO Engineer Walid Abukhaled said during his keynote introduction that “…before the launch of vision 2030, we just had no regulators, no general authority. There was no General Authority for Military Industries (GAMI) or an oversight body to regenerate the whole industry.” He added that “during procurement it was usually the case that the supplier dealt directly with the end user.”

However, Abukhaled challenged his audience to see the progress and effect on the defence sector after the announcement of Vision 2030. “You’ve seen I’m sure the economic changes, you’ve seen the diversity that’s happening in the Kingdom and as well as the social transformation. This transformation is probably the one of the fastest done by a government in history.  I’ve read so many historic books about transformation, and I haven’t seen something [similar] that’s been achieved in such a fast time and in such a smooth way.

“In the defence industry, initially it did cause confusion. Now we have to understand that there is a body that regulates the industry. And if it’s a defence development, there’s another body to understand. At the same time, it brought us lots of opportunities, and it helped us tremendously,’ explained Abukhaled. “So, when there is something that requires localisation, we have an authority that we can go to – there’s a clear industrial participation plan that we have to work through in order to get the programme designed and executed.”

“If we are conducting research & development, we have an authority that we can go to and align with to ensure that what we’re developing is something that is required and will be used by the end user. In parallel, if we want to invest in something to build capabilities, we can go to the Ministry of Defence to understand their requirements [will be met]… and we’re not going to waste time and money by investing something that’s not required,” he said.

“If it’s a project that requires localisation, then we engage with GAMI because defence companies are dealing with matters and projects that are national security issues. If they’re not executed in the right way to the right standard, this is a risk.” Abukhaled explained the dangers of ensuring cybersecurity, and the leaking of information, or not being able to deliver on time a strategic capability to the security forces.

He said that there was still a requirement to establish a body of defence companies that could talk directly with GAMI about industry challenges or evolving defence opportunities. “What happens is still done on individual basis companies, they go and see GAMI or one of the other organisations.  I believe there is a need for to have a body of companies that represent the voice of the defence industry.”

Edge Group Perspective

EDGE Group’s new managing director & CEO
EDGE Group’s new managing director & CEO, Hamad Al Marar, in discussion at the WDS. (Author)

Although only taking up his new role as the UAE-based EDGE Group’s new managing director & CEO, Hamad Al Marar took time out of his hectic schedule to talk to me during WDS. Prior to this organisation leading appointment, Hamad had led the Group’s President of the Missiles & Weapons cluster as its president for four years.

AD: How will EDGE further diversify its business? Would it be into new areas of defence or supplementary additions to those areas it already has?

HAM: In general, I think we try to disrupt everything. We don’t have the scale that the first world has to do things. We are building a scale that we can afford and setting smart ways of operating and manufacturing. The UAE is aiming to adopt the best from everywhere, with a multinational team, which is what we are doing. The acquisitions allow us to be more flexible and expand our programmes, they allow us to be more innovative, more cost efficient and more affordable. And by doing this it allows us to expand. We have an ambition to deliver certain solutions in a certain time frame with those acquisitions.

AD: So, you are selective about those areas. I mean, I don’t see you going out to design a sixth-generation fighter for example.

HAM: I think from the beginning we we decided to stay away from main classes [platforms]. But we’ve been so hard at developing whatever might go inside. So if we ever buy a platform we would most likely impose our subsystems in it.

AD: At WDS, it has been repeated by GAMI and SAMI that they wish to become the defence hub for the region. Do you think this will impact on the expansion of EDGE as well as the UAE defence industry sector?

HAM: I don’t think it will ever do that. The reason is very clear. We have much smaller armed forces.

AD: So, you are looking to serve your own armed forces first.

HAM: Absolutely. We cannot wait for Saudi industry to surpass us. This means that we will have alternatives for supply chain to ensure that we have access to every element that we might need. There will be exchange programmes for sure. There will be different know-hows exchanged. In the end, Saudi is a large country which makes it strong. In one interview I heard, it is not like Saudi verses the UAE, but more like comparing Europe and the GCC [in that both are economic entities]. It is the defence industry in the six GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] nations.

AD: Can you talk about the relationship between EDGE and the Tawazun Council [Tawazun Council is an independent government entity that works closely with the Ministry of Defence, Abu Dhabi Police and security agencies in the UAE]?

HAM: You have to look at the evolution of the industry from 2007 when Tawazun was mandated to establish the defence industry to what we see today. We had several successes, we started expanding but there developed some forms of unhealthy competition. That didn’t work out so that justified the purpose of EDGE. Tawazun lost all of its assets which meant it could be repurposed to manage defence offset programmes and the defence growth partnerships (DGP).  In 2019 EDGE was mandated to its current role.

AD: My final question concerns your four years as head of the missiles and weapons cluster within EDGE. What landmarks would you say occurred in that cluster during your time there?

HAM: The first success was the Al Tariq range of precision guided munitions, jointly developed after EDGE took ownership of South Africa’s Denel Dynamics [a large number of Al Tariq guidance kits were developed for the Mk 81 (250 lb) and Mk 82 (500 lb) bombs] for use by the UAE Air Force. That programme won us the trust of our of our end user [the UAE Government and Armed Forces] which was most important. And the programs kept coming in and coming in.

The war in Yemen resulted in so many restrictions in the supply chain. That triggered us to work and overcome those supply restrictions.

AD: Is there a competition now in the region over finding and securing the supplier base?

HAM: We actually encourage our suppliers who rely on us to diversify. We support them, we qualify them. The [economic] health of our suppliers is important. One day, your business might be less attractive [due to changes in production needs] so you need to be . proactive in qualifying an alternative supplier and alternative pathways.

AD: Thank you, Hamad.

Milrem’s UAE Deal Looking Good for Sales and Product Development

“We have a similar attitude to the approach to market and how Milrem’s business will develop,” said Kuldar Vaarsi, CEO of Milrem Robotics, now a part of the EDGE portfolio of defence companies. Talking nearly one year to the date when EDGE Group acquired Milrem Robotics. Vaarsi said that his company’s ambition was to deliver vehicles that “saved lives as well as increasing operational tempo.”

One of the most recent pieces of positive news for Milrem was the announcement on 24 January that a contract had been agreed to supply 60 autonomous systems to the UAE armed forces. This will comprise 20 tracked combat robotic vehicles (RCVs) and 40 THeMIS unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs). This is one immediate advantage of joining the EDGE Group – immediate access to what the company sees as its ‘home’ customer.

Autonomous navigation is an ongoing research and development activity for Milrem, particularly in navigating rough terrain. Way-point navigation can assist the vehicles to advance over all types of terrain. “Our goal is to cover the major capability needs of our UGV customers,” said Vaarsi.

The vehicles already provided to the Ukraine forces have already proven themselves in harsh and muddy terrain, including areas pockmarked by shell fire. Vaarsi was unable to say how many vehicles were being used by Ukraine’s armed forces but he confirmed that their feedback had been very positive.

Vaarsi also hinted that a uncrewed wheeled version UGV will soon be announced along with “other surprises” about which he would not elaborate.

Milrem Robotics has offices in Estonia, Abu Dhabi, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands.

Bronco Comeback

ST Engineering’s stand at WDS
ST Engineering’s stand at WDS with Bronco All-Terrain Vehicle in the background. (Author)

Singaporean defence manufacturer ST Engineering considers the GCC defence sector as one in which it can find partnerships, both in the KSA and in the UAE. It was exhibiting at WDS and has also attended the IDEX defence event in the UAE.

Jin Kiat Chua, EVP and Head of International Defence Business said that good contacts had been made at WDS, and that the company was learning the process required to conduct business in the GCC.

One of the products on the ST Electronics stand was the Bronco All Terrain Tracked Carrier, which is once again gaining importance with the heightened Great Power strategic interest in Artic and other austere regions. Jin Kiat also pointed out the vehicle’s recognised value gained from operational experience in several countries. In Japan, the vehicle is called the Red Salamander and has been used to carry rescue teams to isolated areas following earthquakes and floods, when roads for other transport were impossible to traverse. Another similar vehicle has been used by Mexican authorities to conduct post-hurricane rescues.

ST Electronics is also reviewing its ammunition production in terms of type and quantity, said Jin Kiat, as it reacts to an increase in global demand for many types from small rounds to artillery shells due to conflicts such as those in Ukraine and the Middle East. However, the company does not sell directly to belligerent parties.

TRD adviser Patrick Choy
TRD adviser Patrick Choy pictured with the hand-held Orion H9 at the WDS show in January, 2024. (Author)

Another Singaporean company looking to make contacts at WDS was TRD Systems. Also in the C-UAS market it has developed a range of Orion drone disruptors that can be both man portable or vehicle mounted are which are Mil-Grade certified. Sam Ong, TRD’s CEO said that the company’s plan was to grow the home market while bringing the technology to the wider international customer base.

The H9 is described by adviser Patrick Choy as a simple man-portable product that can be easily used by new operators. Customers can scale up to full spectrum mobile or fixed site integrated detection and defeat systems. The company is looking at ways in which its detection and intercept technologies might be fitted to an aerial platform in the future.

Counter UAS on the Rise

According to Wojciech Drojecki, vice president of sales at Polish APS Systems, the company approached the WDS event with an open mind regarding the transfer of technology and knowledge regarding its SKYctrl counter-uncrewed aerial vehicle system and FIELDctrl radars. He said that local service centres were sought and that the company had appointed its first employee in Qatar last December.

Drojecki explained that a transfer of technology was not a problem for APS as research and development was continual. “In five years, we have released 10 versions of SKYctrl,” he revealed.

APS Systems has worked with MSI-Defence Systems in the UK to develop a combined four X-band AESA C-UAS radar platform with 360-degree coverage with kinetic kill capability. Trails in October 2020 in the US involved the use of a Seahawk LW30M A2 gun firing 30mm programmable air burst ammunition. MSI-DS’s Terrahawk Paladin uses a 30mm Bushmaster auto-cannon The success of these trials has resulted in at least one sale to a customer in the Levant.

by Andrew Drwiega