Analysis: Saudi Arabia - A close customer (part 3 - maritime)
We come to the last part on Saudi Arabia's defence relationship with the West, the maritime domain. This is less high profile than the land and air but naval platforms have a high dollar price tag and require just as significant an industrial relationship.
The Royal Saudi Navy is planning to procure new destroyers that have a ballistic missile defence capability as well as standard anti-air warfare role. US Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyers from Huntington Ingalls are thought to be favoured although the smaller FREMM frigate from France and F-100 from Spain are also under consideration. A decision is expected in 2017.
In addition there are plans for new frigates to cover anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and anti-surface warfare (ASuW) roles in a programme announced in May. Several ships are required and initial plans saw the consideration of the purchase of four ships based on the Lockheed Martin design of the US Navy's Littoral Combat Ship. Although the offer was not accepted, negotiations will continue.
The procurement programmes are part of a plan to replace the Royal Saudi Navy's 1980s vintage ships, which are also going through an upgrade. Other options on the table include the other US Navy LCS design from General Dynamics, the FREMM frigate that is built by French company DCNS for the French Navy and by Fincantieri for the Italian Navy. It is expected that Spanish shipbuilder Navantia will offer a variant of its F-100 frigate and Germany's ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems may offer one of its designs, probably the latest MEKO-class, which have been successfully exported in the past.
A mixture of ships is likely because the navy has two separate fleets in the Gulf (East) and the Red Sea (West). The foreign military sales (FMS) request for the Lockheed-variant LCS was confirmed in October with an overall project value of $11.25 billion for up to eight ships.
Another expensive piece of hardware and the most difficult to operate and sustain are submarines. Saudi Arabia has wanted to develop its underwater force for over a decade now but plans for six diesel-electrics attack boats that are suited for the shallow waters of the Gulf have not materialised. The main Western exporters of these types of submarine are ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems, DCNS, Navantia, Saab Kockums, and Fincantieri, although there could be options from China, Russia and South Korea.
Smaller ships like corvettes and offshore patrol vessels are cheaper and easier to acquire. As part of its Saudi Naval Expansion Programme II (SNEP II) the navy plans to replace its four Badr and nine Al Siddiq-class corvettes in its Eastern Fleet with five new ships for up to $3.5 billion. The main contender is thought to Navantia with its Avante-class corvettes with Spanish press reports stating that a contract is expected soon and that a second batch of five ships could come further down the line.
Plans for patrol boats seem to have progressed with German press reports in 2014 suggesting that the publicity shy shipbuilder Lurssen has secured a $1.7 billion project for 2-3 OPVs about 80m-long, with 5-10 coastal patrol boats and 100 other smaller patrol boats and interceptor craft, which are yet to be confirmed . However, the Saudi Border Guard has already received the first CSB 40 patrol vessel from Lurssen with the second underway. About 15-20 of these are expected. A competition for smaller 35-45m-long patrol vessels is underway between two joint ventures, DCNS with Piriou against OCEA with Raidco Marine. In addition, an FMS announced in 2013 has called for the procurement of 30 Mark V patrol boats with support worth $1.2 billion.
Into the 21st Century
Meanwhile the navy is going ahead with a number of upgrade programmes to keep its older vessels in service. Paris and Riyadh have agreed to upgrade the four Madina-class frigates and two Boraida-class replenishment ships with French firms DCNS, Thales and MBDA (which will integrate Mistral air defence missiles) with its Simbad launcher doing the work in Saudi Arabia. This includes enhancing the combat systems, sensors, and electronic systems as well as hull refurbishment with each ship to be be worth in excess of $100 million.
The four 70s vintage Badr-class corvettes are undergoing an upgrade in Saudi Arabia with US help after Tacoma Shipbuilders, where they were built in the 80s, shut down in 1992. The refit is taking place under a programme worth about $154.9 million confirmed through an FMS in February that will include the addition of Block 1B Baseline 2 upgrade kits from Raytheon for the Phalanx close-in weapon system as well as associated electro-optical systems, guns and other refurbishment work expected.
Looking ahead there is a requirement for 3-4 new minehunter vessels as the existing Al Jawf-class (ex-UK Royal Navy Sandown-class) ships are getting to the end of their life cycles and it is unclear if one of the three Al Riyadh-class frigates (modified La Fayette-class from DCNS), which was damaged following its delivery under the Sawari II programme in 2004 will be returned to service.
Shop or drop?
This analysis across the land, air and maritime domains has provided some insight into the importance of the Saudi Arabian defence market to the West and gives some example of the money involved and demostrates the close relationship between the country and Western governments and industry.
Their business keeps US and European shipyards open, manufacturing plants running and high tech industries moving because the Saudi Army, Air Force and Navy can all afford to buy the latest and most expensive military hardware available across the board – which is rare for an export customer.
With European defence expenditure continuing its downward spiral and exports become ever more essential to sustain its industry and workforces it is likely that this relationship will get closer rather than part ways.