Saudi defence modernisation focuses on naval prowess

The coming decade will see Riyadh bolster its military capabilities to reimpose naval dominance across its troubled neighbourhood.
Sunday 25/11/2018
Maritime ambitions. Saudi warships are seen sailing near the eastern coast of the country. (Reuters)
Maritime ambitions. Saudi warships are seen sailing near the eastern coast of the country. (Reuters)

DUBAI - Saudi Arabia’s efforts at modernising the Royal Saudi Navy fall under a programme aptly named the Saudi Naval Expansion Programme II — SNEP II. As the name suggests, Riyadh is not simply looking to modernise its fleet by replacing vessels nearing the end of their lifespan but aims to significantly expand its naval capabilities.

SNEP II is a defence vertical of Vision 2030, a wide-ranging programme to place Saudi Arabia among the world’s leading countries. As the Middle East’s centre of gravity and one of the world’s largest oil producers, Saudi Arabia’s maritime security agenda represents a core priority for its leadership.

The regional security environment increasingly emphasises the importance of naval power. Navies have a front-line role in securing sea lines of communication to ensure freedom of navigation at sea, protecting exclusive economic zones and offshore assets. The navy also plays a crucial role in providing warning and engagement capabilities against air and missile attacks, for example.

The maritime industry promises one of the most important opportunities for Riyadh in localising as much as half of its annual defence expenditures. The Royal Saudi Navy’s acquisition programmes can cultivate and support shipbuilding industries as well as naval support services, such as the maintenance, repair and overhaul of military and commercial vessels, creating thousands of skilled jobs.

SNEP II focuses attention on the Royal Saudi Navy’s Eastern Fleet, which last underwent a major modernisation programme in the 1980s and 1990s. It is driven in large part by a need to counter Iranian naval power, which focuses on an ability to blockade critical maritime choke points, such as the Strait of Hormuz.

However, as the world’s largest oil exporter, with more than 2,500km of coastline and surrounded by persistent instability, Saudi Arabia is looking at capabilities to project naval prowess much further than it ever has. Intensifying international competition in the Red Sea on its western flank, Yemen’s implosion and the Horn of Africa’s instability are significant trends that are redefining Riyadh’s maritime threat landscape beyond the Arabian Gulf.

On November 7, Saudi Arabia announced a $2.5 billion deal with Spanish-shipbuilder Navantia for five Avante 2200 corvettes to be delivered by 2022. Saudi Arabian Military Industries said its joint venture with Navantia includes localising up to 60% of the work.

The Avante 2200, which is large enough to be considered a light frigate and features a stealth design and a host of other new technology, will buttress the Saudi navy’s agility and firepower at sea.

Days earlier, the Royal Saudi Navy received the first of ten Seahawk helicopters it had ordered from US manufacturer Sikorsky Aircraft for almost $2 billion in 2015. The Seahawk is an advanced multi-mission aircraft considered the best in its class and which no other Arab navy has in its inventory.

Saudi Arabia’s Seahawks could be deployed on four Multi-Mission Surface Combatant (MMSC) ships that Riyadh is acquiring. The MMSC is the most advanced littoral combat ships built and, in July, the US government awarded a $450 million contract to Lockheed Martin to begin designing and planning for construction of four MMSC ships for Saudi Arabia.

These developments reflect a broader Saudi effort. Riyadh has demonstrated serious interest in recent years to acquire submarines from Germany and remains in close discussions with France — its other traditional naval systems supplier — about advancing capabilities. The last few years saw French company DCNS complete a major upgrade and technology refresh of Saudi Arabia’s flagship Al Riyadh-class frigates.

The Saudi Interior Ministry has been receiving deliveries for a contract estimated at nearly $2 billion with German shipyard Lurssen that was concluded in 2014 for nearly 150 patrol boats. They included two 60m large patrolling boats, 20 40m patrolling craft, 80 15m fast patrol boats and 20 landing craft.

Washington’s growing calls for its partners around Europe, Asia and the Middle East to assume greater security roles is driven by a realisation in the United States that the proliferation of threats leaves little other option but to pursue enhanced “burden-sharing” to ensure international security.

Saudi Arabia had ostensibly reached the same conclusion long before Washington incorporated it into stated policy goals. As the world’s leading per capita spender on defence, Saudi Arabia has never taken its security needs lightly. The coming decade will see Riyadh bolster its military capabilities to reimpose naval dominance across its troubled neighbourhood.