WASHINGTON – As the global defense industry swarms to the International Defence Exhibition and Conference (IDEX) in Abu Dhabi, analysts are predicting that local threats from Iran and Yemen will keep the defense dollars flowing in 2017.
Since the Oct. 1 start date of fiscal year 2017, countries in the region have had 14 foreign weapon sales cases cleared by the US State Department, worth an estimated $42.1 billion. That total is largely inflated by two major, long-awaited sales of F/A-18 fighters to Kuwait and F-15QA fighters to Qatar, but also includes the procurement of AH-64E Apache helicopters for the UAE and CH-47F Chinooks for Saudi Arabia.
There are also several sales for support of existing equipment, part of a trend that Aleksandar Jovovic, an analyst with D.C.-based Avascent, expects to continue in the near term due to the ongoing conflict in Yemen, which represents the first real, protracted campaign Saudi Arabia and the UAE have had to be involved in.
"When you're in a contingency situation like Yemen you need to re-route the money and focus on consumables -- ordnance and material – that you don't expand as much in peacetime because you're mostly engaged in training," he said, adding that sustainment will be vital for the same reason.
Adds Douglas Barrie, senior air analyst at the London-based think tank International Institute for Strategic Studies, "Those air forces involved significantly in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen will need to replenish air-to-surface weapon stocks.
"Operational experience may also drive the purchase of different classes of air-to-surface weapons. Requirements for additional ISR platforms and capabilities may result from operational analysis," Barrie noted.
Both men agree the biggest factor for large-scale procurements in the future will remain Iran, with Barrie noting that "the scale of the ambition of Iran's recapitalization of its military inventory, post-embargo, will influence GCC acquisition plans. Air and missile defense will remain a focus as will the need to better integrate existing capabilities."
Like Barrie, Jovovic expects a strong focus on missile defense due to Iran. But at the lower levels, he sees new areas emerging. The first is undersea autonomous vehicles, which Jovovic says could be used to protect vital undersea infrastructure at a fraction of the cost needed to train and equip a professional submarine force.
Mike Blades, an analyst with Frost and Sullivan, agrees that the market is likely to grow in the Gulf, as well as in the Pacific – and he highlighted that defense companies have made several moves in the last year to acquire small, undersea drone firms in order to bolster their capabilities in that realm.
"There have been several product announcements with regard to USVs and UUVs and these will be relied upon more for force projection on the sea as well as sub hunting and mine hunting/disposal," he said. "Anything to keep humans away from exploding things or to autonomously transport destructive weapons."
Countries in the region will also look to increase C4ISR capabilities to protect their borders, said Byron Callan of Capital Alpha Partners, who dryly notes that Saudi Arabia can’t "build a wall" along its entire border.
The Saudis already have taken a step in that direction, with a request to spend $525 million on US-made aerostats, essentially small blimps loaded with sensors that can be stationary around an area that needs to be observed.
Similarly, analysts expect countries to invest in internal cybersecurity improvements, something that has been on track since the 2012 cyber-attack on Saudi Aramco.
Which brings home the overall challenge for countries in the region: They need to simultaneously defend against high-end threats like Iranian missiles and low-end threats like cyber-attacks, all from nearby nations. And they have to do it at a time when the money is not flowing as it used to, due to decreased oil prices.
"You have what remains a financially somewhat precarious situation for all the commodities exporters, particularly on the oil side," Jovovic said. "It is impacting budgets. Their oil prices are low for what they need because they fill so much of their coffers with oil revenue. They can produce successfully but at the end they need prices to be higher to their budgets."
Despite the income drop, Jovovic expects the Gulf powers to continue to spend heavily on defense for a simple reason: they have no choice.
"In that neighborhood, I think they appreciate that not only is there a security issue in terms of terrorism, border conflict, potential missile attacks from a regional rival, but in some cases their livelihood, offshore oil, is very vulnerable to all kinds of attacks," he said.
"Even when the war is not in the interior, asymmetric attacks like Aramco bring those threats home in a very vivid way. I’m not sure a Western audience fully appreciates that sometimes. We worry about random terrorism and that’s a very remote possibility. That’s not necessarily the case in the Gulf."