Naval modernisation crucial for Saudis
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.