A Turkish F-16 carries a standoff land attack missile-extended response. Saudi Arabia is interested in buying the Boeing-made missiles. (Lockheed Martin)
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WASHINGTON AND DUBAI — For years, the US has limited the sale of precision weaponry to the Arabian Gulf region, but analysts say a change may be coming.
While US State Department officials have said there is no official policy against the sale of long-range missiles, analysts argue there has long been an unofficial policy about selling these kinds of weapons in the region, driven largely by fear of them being used against Israel. That, in turn, drove Middle Eastern countries toward arms makers in Europe.
Two variants of French missile-maker MBDA’s Scalp missile have been particularly popular in the region. The Black Shaheen missile, a Scalp with slightly reduced range, has been purchased by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), while the UK has sold a Storm Shadow variant to Saudi Arabia.
Those weapons face major integration challenges with US-designed fighters, however, leaving both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have respectively made recent commitments to purchase F-15s and F-16s, without the ability to equip long-range precision weapons on key platforms.
Furthermore, as the UAE closes in on its decision for a new fleet of multirole attack fighters, its Air Force has placed beyond-visual range MBDA Meteor missiles within its requirements to Eurofighter and Dassault.
According to Alan Sparkes, director of cooperative programs at MBDA, the UAE’s requirements included the most advanced weapons systems in one aircraft in the world.
The meteor has been marketed by MBDA as “faster and more deadly at any range it can reach” than the AIM-120D advanced, medium-range, air-to-air missile.
But America’s trend of not selling precision weapons to Gulf states could be changing. Last month, the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified Congress of a pair of sales, one to Saudi Arabia and one to the UAE.
The Saudi deal, estimated at US $6.8 billion, included 650 Boeing-made AGM-84H standoff land attack missiles-expanded response (SLAM-ER) precision weapons, essentially a cruise missile. The UAE deal, estimated at $4 billion, included 300 SLAM-ERs.
The deals also contained significant quantities of Raytheon-made AGM-154C joint stand off weapons and GBU-39/B small diameter bombs, also made by Boeing, among other purchases.
These proposed sales, particularly the long-range SLAM-ERs, raised eyebrows in the defense community. If these sales are approved by Congress, it would mark the first time SLAM-ER has been sold to the Gulf region.
Analysts point to the rise of Iran, a joint enemy to the US, Israel and countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council, as a key driver that could be changing the long-held policy.
“Seeing these [deals] pop up strongly suggests to me there has been a policy change somewhere,” said Steve Zaloga, an analyst with the Virginia-based Teal Group. “Somebody had made a decision that these will be openly offered to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.”
Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, agrees that the threat of Iran is likely driving changes.
The Obama administration tends to favor bilateral relationships ahead of agreements such as the Missile Technology Control Regime, and “there are the political realities of reassuring allies, particularly in the face of what Iran is doing,” he said.
“The Saudis are acting really freaked out” about Iran, Lewis said. “Just in the last year, the Saudis have released so much information about their strategic missile force, which is clearly designed to reassure the public or give pause to the Iranians.
The pace of technological growth may also play a part in the decision to allow these weapons to be sold. “Munitions become more precise with the passage of time, so what was really state of the art 10 years ago isn’t anymore,” Lewis said. “It’s just a natural diffusion of technology.”
He also says American industry is likely sick of seeing potential sales to the Gulf region going to Europe instead.
If the US won’t object to the sale of similar weapons to the Gulf, Lewis said, “we might as well join in.”
A Boeing spokesman declined to answer whether the company was frustrated by its inability to enter the Gulf market for these kinds of weapons, but said the company “always looks forward to supporting the US government in its policies for the release of weapons globally.”
Despite this potential sale, a giant run on expensive precision munitions in the region is unlikely. In order to use these weapons, after all, top-level platforms are needed.
“These are the kinds of packages that are only purchased by the upper tier of countries with deep defense spending pockets,” Zaloga said. “It’s not the sort of thing a small air force will pick up.”
Countries such as Oman and Qatar, for example, don’t have the deep pockets needed to buy fleets of American fighters and also make large weapons purchases, similar to the Saudi or UAE hauls.
“Unless you see sales of the F-15 or F-16 variants, you’re not going to get people buying these kinds of munitions for aircraft oriented to the fighter role,” Zaloga said.
Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have other deals in the works. A Saudi order of Raytheon’s Paveway IV laser-guided bomb has stalled for more than two years due to the refusal by the US State Department to approve the deal.
There is optimism that progress is being made, although hurdles remain before the approval process reaches the congressional notification phase. If cleared, the weapons will be fitted to RSAF Tornado and then Typhoon jets.
To help fulfill their precision weapons needs last year, the UAE’s Tawazun Holding and Denel, South Africa’s largest weapons manufacturer, signed a joint venture to build a guided weapons systems facility in Abu Dhabi.
The new company, Tawazun Dynamics, launched in February at the Abu Dhabi International Defence Exhibition, manufactures, assembles and integrates guidance systems for conventional air munitions to transform them into precision guided weapons exclusively for the UAE Air Force.
Zachary Fryer-Biggs in Washington and Andrew Chuter in London contributed to this report.