Why Does Saudi Arabia Need $90 Billion in Weapons?


The Obama administration is seeking a go-ahead from Congress to sell up to $60 billion worth of sophisticated warplanes to Saudi Arabia and could add another $30 billion worth of naval arms in a deal designed to counter the rise of Iran as a regional power.

The deal would apparently represent the largest single U.S. arms sale ever approved. It would allow Saudi Arabia, the most militarily advanced of the Arab Gulf states and one of the richest countries in the world, to buy top-line U.S.-made helicopters and fighter jets with ranges that would span the Middle East and beyond.

Unlike some previous sales to Saudi Arabia, this one is not expected to be derailed by opposition in Congress or from U.S. backers of Israel, who have worried in the past about blunting Israel’s military edge over its Arab neighbors.

That’s more than half of the regular DoD procurement budget in 2010 and a number equal to the entire defense budget of the UK for this year (adjusted roughly to USD).

Iran is now seen by Israel, the Gulf Arab states and the West as a significant and unpredictable threat that has changed the old calculus of the region’s balance of power.

The U.S. is realigning its defense policies in the Gulf as Iran improves the range and accuracy of missiles and other weapons that could threaten Israel or U.S. allies in Europe. Besides the Saudi deal, the U.S. has pending or proposed arms sales to Kuwait, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates, and has repositioned some U.S. forces and military assets around the Gulf.

And the Pentagon is hinting the reason is to build a bulwark against Iran? Come on. If Iran strikes Saudi in any kind of conflict, it isn’t going to be by flying ragged out F-14s or second hand MiG-29s on a cross-country Kamikaze mission. It’s going to be from a suicide vest in a royal palace or a car bomb of Prince Bandar’s motorcade.

They’re going to need MRAPs not Apaches.

One wonders why the Saudis need the high-end, major-theater-war gear. Is it prestige? A bulwark against Israel? Something fun for the princes and their buddies to fly to Dubai in?

Or maybe it’s a nice pick-me-up for a defense industry that’s about to take a hit to the gut from a departing Gates.

  • Rick W

    I imagine that it’s rather more like Reagan’s build up Part II. If the Iranians spend themselves bankrupt trying to counter the Saudi build up they will be just as throughly destroyed as if they had been invaded.

    • Jacob

      Iran isn’t going to counter the Saudis conventionally….more likely they’ll put their resources into asymmetrical capabilities like terrorism and propaganda war, as well as possibly a nuclear weapons program.

      • Rick W

        Terrorism would make a difference if there was a place for the terrorists to hide. Since the Saudis know that the terrorists are coming from Iran they can simply go in and trash the place. Not occupy, not reform, just flat burn it to the ground.

        If you destroy Iran’s oil production you destroy their only method of obtaining the massive amounts of money needed to fund terrorists and nuclear weapons programs.

        The only way for Iran to counter that threat would be to build up a military that could stop the Sauds. Economics won’t work for the Iranians in this case. The one nation on Earth that will most certainly NOT be hurt if the price of oil goes through the roof is Saudi Arabia.

        • Icysquirrel

          The whole point of asymmetrical warfare is that you can do it on the cheap — you don’t see either Iraq or Afghanistan placing major arms orders with anyone. On top of that, Iran is a major supporter of terrorism, yes, but it’s not the only such supporter.

          My question though would be: What would Iran stand to gain from attacking Saudi Arabia, via conventional or unconventional methods.

          • Day

            a good point, but i wouldn’t assume the Iranians will base any future decisions on what seems logical, while i don’t like to underestimate the opposition their past behavior has been erratic to say the least.

          • Rick W


            Another thing about asymmetric warfare, it only works when the other guy can’t find or can’t reach your base of operations.

            In the meantime you can’t go a month without the Iranians annoucing a new military exercise, missile launch or the developement of a new ‘super weapon’ (My favorite one so far is their propeller driven ‘stealth plane’.) But all of those things must be not only free, but something they are not really doing because they are busy building up their asymmetric war capabilities cheap.

            The Iranian’s are full of noise and light about how they are the only ones on the side of God in the Islamic world, so all the rest of the Islamic world should be following them – or else. Maybe the Saudi’s just don’t like that.

  • Sven Ortmann

    A Saudi officer published a revealing article about one of their motorised infantry (=armoured car) brigades (or was it a regiment) years ago in Infantry or Armor Journal (don’t remember which one).
    He wrote quite frankly that it was a high mobility formation with the primary task of quelling internal unrest ASAP. Warfighting was secondary (hence the thinly armoured trucks).

    The Saudi Navy has some practical uses, mostly protection of shipping.

    The Saudi Air Force on the other hand is a kind of jockey club for Saudi princes. It’s not completely useless (defeated Iraqis and Iranis in air combat), but no normal air fore either. It’s a kind of “Thai aircraft carrier = royal yacht” issue.

    Saudi arms imports and military expenditures are furthermore badly inflated by corruption; the per-unit prices are at times twice the normal, and a major reason for this are the bribes.
    It’s part of the national wealth distributions scheme (from king/state to princes to others).

  • blight

    I suspect the only nation to take seriously out of the bunch will be Jordan. Too bad they don’t have oil dollars. Or maybe that’s a good thing.

    The Saudis will keep production lines open, but not for the “future force” stuff America is interested in.

  • I’m not conceptually against this, but I worry about technology proliferation. Are there safeguards and oversight to make sure none of the avionics or radar technologies get anywhere?

    • Tech

      The equipment is usually (perhaps always?) stripped down. I recall the US selling aircraft to a country with avionics/radar striped out.

      • Israel purchaced the F-15Is with the avionics stripped out. This was because the Israelis feel their Avionics, ECM/ECCM, Fire Control Systems and other systems are superior for their environment. You do not need a American radar that can scan to 200-250Km if your country is less than 60Km across in most places and your “friendly neighbors” all have airbases within 100Km of your borders. The F-15Is weigh substantially less than US models, accelerates faster and has a greatly expanded flight envelope.

  • Chops

    While the sale of these weapons systems will give the Saudis a strong offensive capability if needed the most important thing is to get a coalition of Middle East countries to stop Irans’ nuclear program.Isreal will only put up with so much before they decide its’ in their best interest to attack-then all bets are off for any kind of peaceful resolution to the problems posed by a nuclear Iran.

  • Abdullah

    The writer actually showed lack of knowledge about the situation in the area, the historical unfriendly relations between those countries. And also it lacks respect by by being sarcastic about the royal family for no reason and without knowledge to back that up. Iran has a well advanced war machine, a country with over 70 million people (compared to saudi’s 19 m), is a hostile country, and they just ignited a war in the border between Yemen and Saudi. Actually, Saudis would be so stupid if they don’t do everything to protect themselves. Saudi Arabia never started any war throughout its history. And no one in that area talks about sucied bombers, we’re talking a full scale attack that is not impossible with the crazy people running Iran. They talk **** about the US and Israel but in reality they attack their neighbors. At one point Kuwaiti oil ships put the american flags so that they don’t get attacked by the Iranies! saudi is one of the biggest countries in the world with large borders with unstable countries. On top of all, the amount mentioned is wrong, as stated everywhere it is 30 M as of now with the possibility to go up to 60. Iran is distorting the Gulf Countries from all their economical plans by forcing them to spend on military. 

  • STemplar

    It does say it is an option, not a fixed sale. Basically gives the admin room to sell that much but doesn’t mean the Saudis will buy it all. Probably a good indication that at least behind the scenes they are less and less optimistic about how things will play out with Iran.

  • Marvel

    I have a question that hopefully one of you can answer. Some reports say that the F-15s will have certain “limits,” no “long-range weapons systems” and one news report, I forget which, said that the electronics were configured so that Saudi F-15s could not fight Israeli aircraft. Now this sounds like bull. It seems like the only thing they could really limit is the radar package, right?

  • Chops

    The Isrealis want a limit on long range weapons and they were talking about getting a limit on the radar but I don’t know what happened on that point.

  • blight

    The primary source is the WSJ, link here: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704

    “In a notification to Congress, expected to be submitted this week or next, the administration will authorize the Saudis to buy as many as 84 new F-15 fighters, upgrade 70 more, and purchase three types of helicopters—70 Apaches, 72 Black Hawks and 36 Little Birds, officials said.


    U.S. officials are discussing a potential $30 billion package to upgrade Saudi Arabia’s naval forces. An official described these as “discreet, bilateral conversations” in which no agreement has yet been reached. That deal could include littoral combat ships, surface vessels intended for operations close to shore, the official said.

    Talks are also underway to expand Saudi Arabia’s ballistic-missile defenses. The U.S. is encouraging the Saudis to buy systems known as THAAD—Terminal High Altitude Defense—and to upgrade its Patriot missiles to reduce the threat from Iranian rockets. U.S. officials said it was unclear how much this package would be worth.” ~WSJ

    If anything, they need ECHELON support to go eavesdrop on phonecalls that concern the al-Sauds. Maybe they should furnish security-cleared, background-checked Arab translators so we don’t have conversation backlogs ever again, and the Sauds won’t have to worry about being deposed, just as they deposed the Hashemites.

    I see no air refuelling or AWACS in that list, so maybe the Iran strike mission isn’t the idea. So the buy is purely defense, or they’ll try and “make it work”, and discover it won’t without unglamorous air refuelling and JSTARS support…

  • Wildcard

    Limits on long range weapons for the F15… well Saudi’s have been upgrading their Tornado GR4’s to carry Storm Shadow cruise missiles (since 2005)… Storm Shadow is also cleared for the 72 Typhoon aircraft.

  • Byron Skinner

    Good Evening Folks,

    Who ever wrote the article (Greg Grant?) hit most of the buttons. The last thing the US should be doing is selling weapons into the tender box of the middle east. With a $3 trillion investment in Iraq, the last this we need if for Iraq to be sitting between a hostile and a well US armed Sunni Saudi Arabia and the politically unstable Iran.

    The only saving grace to all this, is that to man these weapons the Saudis need men, women need not apply here, and the Saudi male is not prone to wanting to joining an expeditionary military. The only option for the Saudis will be foreign “contractors”, is it only a coincidence that “Blackwater” is attempting to reestablish itself in the area?

    Is the day far off when current Americans will be engaged in combat against former American service men?


    Byron Skinner

  • David

    Just remember people Israel has the final say on this. We must obey them. Not sure why though?

  • Wildcard

    IIRC this was resolved after Israel got the green light on the F35′ purchase. Saudi was supposed to get what they wanted.
    Again IIRC the bone of contention at the time was new AESA radars (APG 63 v3?), and a long range strike weapons capability? If there were to be limits imposed, then yes limiting the radar package (offering older gen radar) and the EW suite might take a hit also.

  • I saw NO IF found to funding NYC Ground Zero Mosque center or aiding terrorisim alone.
    Then NO.
    Or boost Price for covering War costs or NYC Mosque.

  • Tom_Beebe

    So here’s the scenario: iran attacks Israel and the Saudis do nothing with all their new toys. Then what, Barack ??

  • Marvel

    Haha what is Iran going to attack Israel with? And why?

  • Rob

    Saddam’s military was a land buffer zone from iran/ russia. Now that we are leaving there is no large scale air or sea power besides our ‘limited’ presence.

    Our shock and awe & their insurgency exposed to the world how weak borders are without military aircraft patrols.

    Also if Iran and Isreal ever battle , Saudi’s will need this airpower to guard it’s border even moreso.

    Am highly surprised the United States is not considering moving many bases to the mexican border. Not as a threat buildup but to increase defense in our weakest land borders during this wars of extremists, criminals & insurgents

  • Oblat

    The Saudis are unlikely to buy everything, but the prospect is good enough to keep America quiet. Strategic investments in the US to keep us docile have been going on for a long time.
    After all who knows when a bunch of Saudis will want to knock down another building in NYC.

    • blight

      I don’t see a trivial offering of aircraft to Saudi Arabia doing much to placate anybody when it comes to non-state actors from Saudi Arabia. The Al-Sauds care about Al Qaeda as much as they care about womens rights. Don’t rock the boat, ignore the problem. Rock the boat, smite.

      Americans are unusually paranoid about foreigners owning businesses here….look at CNOOC, for instance, or Dubai World Ports, where the latter is an Arab nation that’s an ally (for the moment).

    • Yep, I’m sure they’ll hit them with non-navalized F-15s that they launch off of their – oh, wait.

  • STemplar

    Saudi Arabia cares about selling oil and that is pretty much it. So when Iran shoots its mouth off about war games and attacking the US in the Straits of Hormuz I’m not sure why this sort of a sale would be a surprise. I’m sure they would happily join the US in bombing Iran back to Hammurabi if they tried to block the straits.

    • blight

      Hammurabi was from “The Land Between Two Rivers”, and was not Persian.

      If the Sauds were serious about a counter-Iran capability, there would be amphibious forces and “littoral ships”. Or maybe they’re not into the occupation business?

  • Hugh

    Some earlier posts comment on the popular idea that israel is our only friend in the middle east. I see it a different way. Before alligning ourselves with israel we had no enemies in the middle east.

  • Brian

    Guys, this is business, pure and simple.

    Saudi Arabia, while a place I certainly wouldn’t want to live in, is effectively our ally. Their only source of wealth is oil. They know it, we know it. The Saudi leadership, the guys with the money and the military, don’t want the infidels to be destroyed. They like us. So we sell them expensive toys.

    Insurance against Iran? Eh. Parity against Israel? More likely. This is a case of keeping up with the Joneses. The US is playing the salesman in this deal. “It slices, it dices, it can even cut through this lead pipe without losing its razor sharp edge…” Do they need all this stuff? Probably not. And the chances of them actually using it in battle against Israel or Iran are next to nothing. But they aren’t going to use it against us, either.

  • Dirty

    Because If we go bankrupt they can get our equipment before we go the way of the USSR

  • Wild Bill

    ssshhhhh…. its all about jobs, jobs, jobs… If you say anymore everyone will know!

  • blight

    You know, the real hedge against Iran would be to replace Maliki and train armored divisions with lots of rocket artillery…alternatively,some way to impose secularization like in Turkey, but it wouldn’t be easy without a great deal of consensus.

  • Drake1

    Who cares what they need when they are paying.

  • Locarno

    Countries on immediate land or facing sea borders include:

    Frankly if they were in my list of immediate neighbours and I had more money than I knew what to do with, I’d consider some serious cannoning-up as well….

  • Benjamin

    The 84 F-15s couldn’t possibly exceed $15 billion, even with all
    maintenance, training and weaponry costs thrown in.

    Upgrading another 70 F-15s couldn’t possibly exceed $4 billion – that’s nearly $60 million a jet we’re talking about.

    The 70 Apaches couldn’t possibly exceed $4 billion – that’s more than $50 million per helicopter, even with all associated costs thrown in.

    The 72 Blackhawks couldn’t possibly exceed $3 billion – that’s more than $40 million per helicopter, even with all associated costs thrown in.

    The 36 Little Birds couldn’t possibly exceed $2 billion – that’s more than $50 million per helicopter, even with all associated costs thrown in.

    Even at its most extravagant, the arms deal adds up to less than $30 billion, tops.

    Where does the $60 billion price tag come from?

    • Wild Bill

      The difference between $60 billion and $30 billion??? Its called the juice… ha

    • Yep, sounds like markup. As a U.S. taxpayer, I’m not complaining. Although, in fairness, it really seems like they would be better off buying Russian – politics DO talk.

  • blight

    That sounds like pretty painful markup. We should compare cost numbers to similar arms deals with Israel, South Korea, etc and find the markup…

  • Joe

    I looked at the shopping list. The BlackHawks alone will put many people on the payroll for a few years here in CT.

    The sad truth is, the US must start to go to green energy, and purchase from Saudi will drop. The Saudi preferrred customer now goes to China, after going to only the US for decades.

    The Saudi’s could just as easy buy Chinese systems for some of their needs.

    We should be grateful if this deal goes through.

  • PolicyWonk

    It isn’t surprising that the Saudi’s want to bolster their arms forces, especially if you consider that the balance of power in the ME was badly disrupted by removing Saddam and putting Iran into the drivers seat in the region (they don’t call it the Persian Gulf for nothing).

    This has had the strangely beneficial effect of having the Saudi’s (and others in the region) working the back channels with Isreal (they’ve been slowly toning down the rhetoric over the past several years) as many of them have determined that it isn’t Isreal that is destabilizing the region (or otherwise openly causing trouble). That honor goes largely to Iran (and the US – who destabilzed the region in the first place).

    The Isreali’s really have little to fear from the Iranians despite all the noise/nonsense coming from the mullahs and their nutty president: Isreal has a highly survivable nuclear deterrant that would turn Iran into a sea of glass (and the Iranian government isn’t stupid) with plenty let over to spare.

    As long as people keep their cool – the Iranian people will likely take their goverment out for us.

  • ka5s

    Lots more… see http://www.defenseindustrydaily.com/f22-squadron-

    “…At the international date line, whoops, all systems dumped and when I say all systems, I mean all systems, their navigation, part of their communications, their fuel systems. They were—they could have been in real trouble. They were with their tankers. The tankers – they tried to reset their systems, couldn’t get them reset. The tankers brought them back to Hawaii. ”

  • ka5s

    I wonder. How closely does the buy fit the OOB for a fast reaction force?

  • 9out

    If the Saudis want a REAL plane, they better buy the FRENCH one… Much better plane than the US one.

  • blight

    Don’t be sorry. It’s a good post. I suspect your idea of prepositioning American equipment in the guise of a Saudi purchase is a good one, but that it will be dominantly true for American ground equipment. Our aircraft appear to be able to deploy much faster than the equipment needed for armor divisions.

    A weapons buy sends a message that the Saudis may no longer be as weak as they were in the ’90s; one of the sore points of GW1 was that the Middle Eastern nations couldn’t even protect Mecca without outsiders. This buy proves that the Arab martial pride could be on the upswing.

    It still doesn’t address the possibility of an internal revolution. It would be up to their National Guard to prevent a coup from succeeding.

  • roland

    I think this is good for both countries (Saudi Arabia and USA), economically and on security.

  • Monk

    Likely as a favor to the U.S., whose economy is wasting away.

  • mkmathews

    Jobs! if we can’t make them here at home by ourselves. Then we can ask the Saudis to GIVE us a few jobs for a 90 billion dollar donation. Got to keep the Prez looking good overseas now.