Saudi Arabia is planning to set up an air warfare center in the Eastern Province similar to the one at Nellis Air Base in the US, according to Commander of the Royal Saudi Air Forces Prince Lt. Gen. Turki Bin Bandar Bin Abdulaziz. In an interview with Al-Arabiya TV channel on Sunday, Prince Turki said the center will be supported with qualified staff and sophisticated systems.
Saudi Arabia with its Royal Air Force claims to be the third strongest air power in the region. But the foundation of the new center gives rise to a set of questions: What is the aim behind building such a center? And what role will it play in the Arab kingdom’s military strategy?
Saudi air power
The Saudi air force, officially Saudi Royal Air Forces, has under operation 10 air bases and some 20,000 personnel. The most important bases are two. The first is located in the Dhahran province airport in the southeast of the country. It gets its importance from its being close to the Persian Gulf coasts.
The second one is located in Jeddah resort city on the Red Sea coasts. This airbase is tasked with logistical support to the Eastern Province. There are also two other important airbases. One in the northeast and the other in the southeast. This one is close to the Red Sea and Yemen territories.
The oil-wealthy monarchy has a large number of US-made F-15 fighter jets that account for a majority of the nation’s air strength. The jets are maintained in the center of the country to be saved in case of surprise attacks. They are repaired and maintained in this spot by foreign technicians.
The country also has King Faisal airbase which is located in Tabuk province near the border with Jordan and is used as a training facility. Al-Jawf airbase is another air complex located in northern Saudi Arabia, next to the Iraqi borders. With a look at the location of the airbases, it is easy to understand that majority of them cover the east of the country. Despite that, the Saudi leaders are planning to set up a new warfare center in the Eastern Province, signaling changes in the country’s military and air strategy.
Strategic air force changes
According to the Global Firepower ranking, Saudi Arabia is the 25th largest military power in the world. Although this ranking does not represent the reality of a country’s military power— for example, Yemen ranks 73 but in the war against the two aggressive powers of Saudi Arabia and the UAE which are way stronger and more equipped than it has turned out victorious—, Riyadh has less power than the major regional countries. This drives it to create a balance of power by heavily investing in its air power due to its weakness in the ground force.
Both the US and Britain are key military suppliers of air weaponry to the kingdom over the past two decades. London has so far sold Riyadh over 70 Typhon fighter jets. The Saudis also are the main purchasers of the Brutish Tornadoes. The US, on the other side, provides the kingdom with a large number of F-15s.
Despite the costly purchases, Saudi Arabia remains weak and easily venerable in the air defense. Such understanding motivated Saudis since 2008 to boost their air force’s missile capabilities. On the other side, the facilities provided by Britain and Saudi Arabia require Riyadh to buy supplementary equipment for its air force. For instance, in 2008, it bought for its Tornadoes 1,000 anti-armor missiles. In 2013 it bought 650 anti-ship missiles for its F-15s. The Arab country over the past few years has bought laser-guided and sophisticated bombs to make up for its vulnerability in air defense and attack potentials. These purchases proved not enough in the eyes of the Saudis. So, in October 2017, they sealed a deal to buy 7 THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Air Defense) from the US, for $15 billion. In fact, it is the over-supply of the air equipment that pushes the Saudis to design a new warfare center to transform their air defense and war strategy.
US-Britain role in Saudi air strategy
Creating false military needs for Saudi Arabia, the US and Britain traditionally sold serialized weapons to Saudi Arabia to make it the customer of the most expensive weapons in the world. Under the leadership of Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has been ambitiously working to lead the Arab world through becoming the strongest country in the region.
In his regional military strategy, US President Donald Trump has said that he will strengthen his allies’ air defenses. He also seeks to found an Arab version of NATO in which Riyadh struggles to have a leading role. But Trump’s final aim is to sell as much military equipment as possible to Washington’s regional allies. He also wants to decrease the US military presence costs and make the regional partners pay for the American presence.
The Saudi officials have announced that the new air warfare center will take its model from the Nellis Airbase in Nevada. Two main missions of Nellis are training the air personnel and providing logistical support to the US air forces.
Saudi Arabia is short of technical abilities and expertise to use its modern military facilities. So, it feels a need to initiate a new center to train its personnel. the location is chosen Eastern Province because the Saudi rulers want to expand their air reach over the Persian Gulf region and also defend their oil facilities which are dominantly located in the country’s east.
The Eastern Province borders Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, and Jordan. Establishing a new airbase, Saudi Arabia thinks, will give it air control and dominance over much of the Arab states. But the rulers should begin counting the costs of such a money-swallowing project, while the monarchy’s economy is already under a pressure that pushed it to consider selling oil giant Aramco shares or seize billions of dollars from the wealthy royals under a crackdown campaign led by bin Salman.