ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — The Saudi Arabian National Guard has embarked on its plan to build a rotary-wing force that consists of the latest variants of both Apaches and Black Hawks and Boeing-made AH-6i light attack helicopters, according to U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Frank Muth, the Saudi Arabian National Guard modernization program manager.

Muth told Defense News in an interview at the International Defence Exhibition and Conference in Abu Dhabi on Thursday that he received the go-ahead last month from Army Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker, Alabama, to conduct AH-64 Echo-model Apache and UH-60 Mike-model transitions into Saudi Arabia.

Eighteen months ago, the Saudi Arabian National Guard, or SANG, had no helicopters on the ground, the two-star said, and now there are 36 with a plan to build a fleet of 156 aircraft.

The SANG currently has 12 AH-64Es, 24 UH-60Ms and 12 AH-6is, Muth said. No other country in the world has AH-6is, he noted, adding the birds are expected in May.

"This is a test case, a proof of principle, that they are going to look at for six months," Muth said, where 42 aviators that provide training, assistance and modernization efforts for the SANG will develop a training program that covers the fleet.

"We are training everything across the board," from maintainers to refuelers to firefighters, not just pilots, Muth said. And the program is helping the SANG set up the right kind of facilities for the fleet of aircraft.

What happens beyond the six-month pilot period remains to be seen. Muth said to stay tuned, adding: "I'd like to take it beyond that."

Building the rotary-wing fleet is a part of the SANG's modernization effort that fits into Saudi Arabia's 2030 modernization plan.

The modernization efforts for the SANG started 44 years ago with help from the U.S. Army in a "train, advise, assist and modernize" role, according to Muth. At its inception, the guard was 30,000 strong. Now Muth oversees roughly 320,000 people, which includes, 130,000 civilians, 130,000 military personnel and local hires like interpreters.

The 2030 plan is meant to help Saudi Arabia create more self-sufficiency and move away from a petroleum-based economy. Within that is robust military investment.

Northrop Grumman and a Saudi company provide contract trainers to the SANG that are embedded in the units all the way down to the battalion level and in some instances to the company level.

The program office that Muth manages is arranged much like the U.S. Army. There is a full contracting division to oversee vetting, signing and execution of contracts, and there are essentially branches that function like Training and Doctrine Command, the Army headquarters, and an acquisitions, logistics and technology organization.

Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.

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