Naval modernisation crucial for Saudis

Sunday 08/05/2016

Dubai - As the largest oil exporter in the world and with a developing economy of considerable untapped potential, Saudi Arabia views maritime security as critical to its national and regional inter­ests.

The 2,640km Saudi coastline is comparable to South Africa’s and greater than that of Egypt’s. On its western flank, the Saudi coast­line is approximately 1,840km, accounting for four-fifths of the eastern seaboard of the Red sea, through which more than 8% of global maritime traffic transits daily.

Cairo recently restored sover­eignty of the Tiran and Sanafir is­lands to Riyadh, which had ceded control of them in 1949 to let the Egyptians utilise them against Is­rael — but the Israelis captured the two islands during the six-day war and returned them following the 1979 peace treaty in which Egypt committed to freedom of naviga­tion. Riyadh also announced it would finance a project that would connect Saudi Arabia and Egypt with a bridge over the Red sea.

On its eastern flank, the Saudi coast runs more than 800km along the Gulf, through which more than 30% of globally traded oil passes every day and where concerns of an Iranian blockade persist.

Of strategic interest to Saudi Arabia are three maritime choke points around the Arabian penin­sula: the Strait of Hormuz, the Bab el Mandeb strait and the Gulf of Suez. The closure of any of these would affect Saudi national secu­rity by cutting off key supply lines for energy exports and imports of raw materials, food, livestock and other essential items.

Despite substantial force de­ployments in the region from in­ternational allies such as the Unit­ed States, United Kingdom and France, Saudi Arabia must assume the regional leadership role among Gulf Arab states in confronting threats at sea. Unsurprisingly, Saudi Arabia has the largest naval force in the region.

While the United Arab Emirates and Oman have been modernising their forces and building on their legacy as primarily coastal and off­shore-focused navies, Saudi Ara­bia remains the only regional force with the ability to maintain a truly blue-water-capable, war-fighting navy.

However, the Royal Saudi Navy (RSN) is in need of modernisation. The majority of its fleet was com­missioned during the 1970s and 1980s and a large proportion of its vessels reaching the end of their useful service life.

The Saudis are embarking on a large-scale modernisation in which they have prioritised the Eastern Fleet, based out of Jubail, as the primary focus.

Riyadh has been assessing op­tions for its Saudi Naval Expansion Programme-II (SNEP-II) for some years and is inching closer to a se­ries of major acquisitions. SNEP-II is estimated to cost $16 billion and the Saudis are inclined to meet programme requirements almost entirely from their US ally. The RSN Eastern Fleet is comprised of mainly US-built vessels, al­though the Western Fleet is mainly sourced from France.

The RSN is keen to acquire four Multi-Mission Surface Combatant (MSC) warships, which are based on the littoral combat ship (LCS) with which the US Navy is mod­ernising its own fleet.

The MSC offers a robust set of advantages as a dynamic, com­pact warship at the leading edge in its class of ships. It is understood that the Saudis are close to a deal with the United States, which has agreed to sell the MSC to Riyadh but costing and delivery schedules are impeding finalisation.

SNEP-II would enable the RSN to regain an advantage over Ira­nian capabilities at sea, which have evolved considerably in re­cent years as Tehran employed an asymmetric strategy that relies on stealth and speed. The Saudi East­ern Fleet was originally equipped to counter larger surface targets and lacked capabilities to deal with the more non-traditional threat of Iranian small craft and midget sub­marines.

SNEP-II envisages ships and pa­trol boats three to five times larger than what the Eastern Fleet cur­rently operates. They would be more survivable, have more robust combat systems and able to oper­ate at sea with helicopters and un­manned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

In May 2015, the United States announced a $1.9 billion deal with Riyadh for ten MH-60R multi-mission helicopters able to operate from frigates and corvettes. Armed with precision-guided rockets, the MH-60Rs would provide an effec­tive counterpunch against Iran and, alongside three new maritime patrol aircraft (MPAs) being pur­sued by Riyadh, represent a major leap forward for Saudi anti-subma­rine warfare capabilities.

SNEP-II also calls for six 2,500-tonne warships, around two dozen fast patrol vessels and 40 ship- and shore-based UAVs. As such, once SNEP II is implement­ed, Saudi naval power in the Gulf could become much sharper than Iranian naval capabilities.

Saudi Arabia has also expressed interest in buying German subma­rines but it is unclear if Berlin will be willing to supply the desired class of vessels.

Germany has sold Dolphin-class submarines, modified so they could carry Israeli nuclear-tipped Popeye cruise missiles, to Israel but Berlin reportedly is uncom­fortable with deeper defence coop­eration with the rest of the region. However, German shipbuilder Lurssen is building a number of fast patrol craft for the RSN after winning a contract in 2014.

Saudi Arabia will also need new landing craft for troops, tanks and vehicles, and vessels for logistics and support if it is to sustain its drive as an emerging regional pow­er that can respond to emerging maritime and shore-based threats in a region undergoing dramatic structural transformation.

SNEP-II needs five to seven years to be realised unless fiscal chal­lenges stretch procurement cycles over a longer period.