Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates strengthen their air and naval forces to counter Iran

  • Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have invested heavily in new military hardware for Iran.
  • They continued their buildup even as President Joe Biden tried to reassure them of American support.

Iran’s military moves in recent weeks have drawn global attention, stoking concern among rivals in the United States and the Middle East.

On September 1, the Iranian Navy briefly seized two US Navy unmanned surface vessels in the Red Sea, making its second attempt to capture a US drone in a week.

On September 4, Iranian Air Force Commander Brig. General Hamid Vahedi, said the country hoped to acquire Russian Su-35 fighter jets in what would be Tehran’s biggest purchase of fighters since 1990.

The following day, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy exhibited a new catamaran-style “patrol combat vessel” equipped with vertical-launched missiles – a first for an Iranian navy vessel.

These actions come as part of a longer-term military build-up by Iran’s neighbors, which seek to counter Tehran’s asymmetric capabilities by improving their air and naval forces. Their buildup has continued despite President Joe Biden’s efforts to secure them US support and improve their relationship in the face of growing geopolitical competition.

Dominant Air Power

United Arab Emirates F-16 KC-10 tanker

A United Arab Emirates F-16 prepares to link up with a U.S. Air Force KC-10 tanker in August 2019.

US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Chris Drzazgowski


The vast oil wealth of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has allowed them to be the top two defense spenders in the Middle East and North Africa, and their relationship with the United States and Europe provide access to the best combat aircraft on the market.

The core of the Royal Saudi Air Force strength are its 232 F-15 Eagles, of which at least 84 are F-15SA variants specially designed for Saudi Arabia. The RSAF also operates 71 Eurofighter Typhoon fighters and 66 Panavia Tornado attack aircraft.

Saudi Arabia is upgrading its F-15s, and in November the US State Department approved the sale of 280 AIM-120C air-to-air missiles for $650 million to Riyadh.

F-15 of the Royal Saudi Air Force

A Royal Saudi Air Force F-15 at King Faisal Air Base in Saudi Arabia in February 2021.

US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Catherine Walters


Saudi aircraft continue to play a major role in Riyadh’s campaign in Yemen. Their operations prevented the Houthi forces from taking important territory and stop Houthi drones and missiles from hitting Saudi Arabia, but Saudi airstrikes, often carried out with American supportcontinue to kill civilians.

The UAE’s air fleet is smaller but equally powerful, consisting of 78 F-16s and 49 Mirages of the 2000s used for both fighter and ground attack operations.

Over the past year, the United Arab Emirates has declared that would buy 80 French-made Dassault Rafale and 12 Chinese made Hongdu L-15 jet trainers, with an option for 36 more. The United Arab Emirates are also apparently in talks with the Turkish firm Baykar for 120 Bayraktar TB2 drones.

Modern fleets

Royal Saudi Naval Force corvette HMS Badr

Royal Saudi Naval Force corvette HMS Badr in the Persian Gulf in December 2020.

US Navy/MCS3 Louis Thompson Staats IV


The main combat ships of the Saudi Navy are three Al Riyadh class frigates, four Al Madinah-class frigates, four Badr-class corvettes, and nine Al Siddiq-class patrol boats. The United Arab Emirates combat fleet is made up of smaller ships: six Baynunah-class and an Abu Dhabi class corvettes and 36 patrol boats.

Both navies plan to expand and modernize.

In 2017, Riyadh signed a contract with Lockheed Martin for four multi-mission surface combatant warships, a variant of the US Navy’s Freedom-class littoral combat ship. The Saudis also have received two of five built in Spain Al Jubail-class corvettes they ordered in 2018. The last three are expected to be delivered by 2024. The Kingdom has also ordered 39 HSI32 Interceptor ships of the French shipbuilder CMN Group.

The United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, ordered two Gowind 2500-class corvettes from the French Marine group in 2019. The first corvette was spear in December and the second in May.

In addition to securing their own waters, the Saudi and Emirati navies have both sent ships to support a blockade from Yemen.

Changing threats, priorities and purchases

United Arab Emirates Baynunah-class corvette

The first Baynunah-class corvette ordered by the UAE first sailed from Cherbourg, France in June 2009.

JEAN-PAUL BARBIER/AFP via Getty Images


Despite presenting its new warships and announcing its intention to buy more fighter jets, Tehran has recalibrated its defense structure in recent years.

“Ten years ago, you could see Iranians were still thinking somewhat conventionally about doing things,” said Michael Knights, an expert on military and security affairs of Persian Gulf countries at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. .

Handicapped by sanctions and a limited industrial base, Iran has been mostly unable to build and deploy advanced military hardware. It has gone from trying to match the conventional capabilities of its opponents to focusing on things like missile and drone development.

“They’ve moved past a bunch of things they weren’t good at and focused on things they’re reasonably good at now,” Knights told Insider.

from iran missile arsenal is the largest in the Middle East and quite capable, just like its drone fleet.

Damage to Al Asad al-Asad base in Iraq after Iranian missile attack January 2020

US soldiers and journalists inspect the damage to Al Asad base in Iraq after it was hit by Iranian missiles.

AP Photo/Qassim Abdul-Zahra


Hundreds of missile and drone attacks using Iranian-made equipment have been launched against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates from Yemen and Iran since 2015. In January 2020, Iran launched over a dozen ballistic missiles on US military bases in Iraq after US killing of Iranians. Major General Qassem Soleimani.

Iran provides drones in Moscow as the Russian army fights in Ukraine. In mid-September, Ukraine said it had destroyed an Iranian drone used by Russian forces for the first time.

Iran also has developed air defenses which could probably effectively defend its home territory.

But the advanced weapons currently deployed by Iran and its neighbors, as well as the narrow confines of the Gulf region, mean that any conflict would result in heavy casualties on both sides.

“The Gulf States and the Iranians would probably be able to do a lot of damage to each other very early in a war. Both sides would lose their navy very quickly,” Knights said.

Therefore, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have placed more emphasis on the development of anti-aircraft and missile defense systems. Both are also invest in unmanned systems.

Both countries are working to integrate and network their drones and systems, which the United States has supportedand have participated in or hosted several military exercises involving drones, including the US-led international maritime exercise this year, the greatest exercise of unmanned systems in the world.

unmanned warships in Bahrain

U.S. and Bahraini officials in front of unmanned warships during Bahrain’s Naval Support Activity in Manama in January.

US Navy/MCS1 Mark Thomas Mahmod


IMX 2022 was also the first time Israel and Saudi Arabia, which have no diplomatic relations, officially took part in an exercise together.

The Saudis and the United Arab Emirates have looked to their burgeoning defense industries to build this weaponry, but the Biden administration – which froze arms sales to Saudi Arabia upon taking office due of human rights concerns linked to the war in Yemen – now seems willing to reconstitute Saudi Arabia. and Emirati arsenals as part of its efforts to improve relations.

Just weeks after his visit to the Middle East in July 2021, Biden approved a $5 billion arms sale including up to 300 Patriot missile interceptors for Saudi Arabia and two high-powered area defense systems. altitude with 96 interceptor missiles for the United Arab Emirates.

Iran is “in a game of mutually assured destruction” with the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, “over the loss of critical infrastructure,” Knights said.

“But if counter-missile and counter-drone trends continue to move in the direction they are currently going, the GCC may be better prepared to defend against the Iranians, and that is a trend break. interesting,” he added.

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