The largest infusion of U.S. arms ever for Persian Gulf allies has shifted more toward offensive weapons at the same time that President Obama’s military strategy says it will rely more on allied firepower in any future war.
The only war on the horizon for Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and four other Gulf coalition partners would be with nearby Iran. Noting U.S. sales of air defense-penetrating F-16s and F-15s, satellite-guided bombs and a pending order for ordnance that can burrow deep and then explode, analysts say Gulf nations could participate in a U.S. air campaign to strike Iran’s nuclear sites.
These American-armed nations could either be part of an overall war plan or be forced to enter the battle once Iran counterattacks, as expected, with missile launches.
“The thinking certainly is that Iran would retaliate against the Gulf states, or at least against the facilities in the Gulf that we use,” said Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East analyst at the Congressional Research Service. “That would certainly draw the Gulf states into any conflict that went on. The Gulf might become embroiled in this conflict, and I think they’ve calculated it’s best to be prepared.”
There has been public focus on the U.S. military buildup in the Gulf — more aircraft carriers, warplanes and strike groups studded with Tomahawk cruise missiles; more minesweeping ships; a visit by Air Force F-22 stealth jets; and thousands of Army soldiers positioned in Kuwait.
But just as methodically, the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have approved a series of large arms sales that are giving some oil-rich Gulf states offensive capabilities that would make Iran think twice about an attack.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta underscored the alliance Dec. 11 when he landed in Kuwait, a staunch Gulf ally, for consultations. He also spoke to some of the 13,500 U.S. troops stationed there. “Our presence in Kuwait and throughout the Gulf helps advance the capabilities of partnering nations, deters aggression and helps ensure we’re better able to respond to crisis in the region,” Mr. Panetta told reporters beforehand.
At a Kuwait air base, he said America has 50,000 troops and an armada of warships in the region.
Mr. Obama’s strategic guidance in January enabled cuts in U.S. troop strength in part by saying that allies would be tasked with providing more firepower in future wars. To observers, that seems to mean the Gulf states would be asked to do more.
The Congressional Research Service, which tracks global arms sales, took special note in its latest report on U.S. weapons pouring into the Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain.
“The U.S. arms agreements with Saudi Arabia were extraordinary, and represent, by far, the largest share of U.S. agreements with the world or developing world in 2011,” the Congressional Research Service said.
Of $56 billion in total U.S. arms sales in 2011 to developing nations, more than half — $33 billion — were inked with the Saudi kingdom. U.S. defense contractors have seen a sales increase from $14 billion in contracts in 2010 to $56 billion in 2011, mostly thanks to oil-rich Gulf states.
In addition, some of the offensive hardware that the Gulf states have received from the U.S. is as good or in some cases better than the U.S. military‘s.
Lockheed Martin has been selling the United Arab Emirates an F-16 “Desert Falcon” version known as “Block 60,” for which the country bankrolled the $3 billion development costs. According to DefenseIndustryDaily.com, it is a notch better than the latest Fighting Falcons flown by U.S. pilots.
The Desert Falcons boast extended range, new radars and targeting pods that clearly make the jet an offensive threat against Iran directly across Gulf waters.
The United Arab Emirates has been buying and flying Block 60s since the previous decade. It plans at some point to add other weapons — 2,000-pound bunker-busting bombs used against buried, cemented targets. Obama administration officials said a year ago that they were working to complete the sale.
“It’s perfectly possible the UAE could be asked to try to bomb aircraft shelters, hardened aircraft hangars’ stockpiles, coastal missile sites that are hardened,” Mr. Katzman said. “There are a range of targets that coalition partners like UAE could be asked to take out as part of strike package, if it comes to that.”
The Saudi stockpile
The United Arab Emirates‘ Sunni Arab neighbor Saudi Arabia also is buying more aggressive weapons. It signed a deal last year to buy 2,000 joint direct attack munitions — a weapon system that turns unguided bombs into guided missiles, and has been used extensively by the Navy and Air Force to destroy targets in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Saudi Arabia also signed a deal to buy 84 F-15SAs and to upgrade its fleet of 70 warplanes.
The F-15s can unleash a wide array of ordnance, including the satellite-guided joint direct attack munitions, Harpoon ship-blasting missiles and anti-tank bombs called the Sensor-Fuzed Weapon.
Such offensive weapons are increasing in importance to the Gulf, given Israel’s reported plans to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities if the West does not stop the Islamic republic’s pursuit of atomic weapons.
The Gulf states “also see the Shiite-dominated Iran as a general destabilizing force in their neighborhood,” said retired Air ForceLt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, who advocates military action against Tehran.
“Clearly, the Sunni Arabs are very concerned about [Shiites] sweeping across the Arabian Peninsula into Lebanon, Syria and Gaza, fueled by Iran’s leadership and resources,” Gen. McInerney said. “The U.S. sale of modern aircraft and weapons is designed to help them cope with this threat.”
He said the Gulf nations also are banking on assistance to which they would never admit publicly. “Covertly, they are supporting the Israelis’ counter [to the Shiites],” he said.
From Iran’s vantage point, the Persian Gulf looks like this: The U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain, constantly patrols the waterway. To the west and south on land, the Gulf nations are acquiring an increasingly potent arsenal of planes, missiles and bombs.
“We have been selling these countries weapons of varying sophistication for 20-plus years as part of our overall approach to ensuring regional security and stability,” said James Russell, an instructor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.
“We really ramped up our entire defense relationships with these countries after we ejected [Iraqi dictator] Saddam Hussein from Kuwait,” said Mr. Russell, a former Pentagon official involved in foreign arms sales. “We went around the region concluding Defense Cooperation Agreements with each of these states, except Saudi Arabia, which provided a framework for arms sales, prepositioned equipment, forward deployed forces, and training and exercises.
“We want these countries to be able to defend themselves and be able to operate and train with us, since we are the ones ultimately guaranteeing the security of the region,” Mr. Russell said.