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This analysis originally appeared at southfront.org on January 15, 2016

Saudi Arabia's Armed Forces - Military Analysis

Saudi Arabia’s GDP reached almost 800 billion dollars in 2014 with а military budget of more than 70 billion dollars. The country that has a population of less than 30 million people and an army of 233,500 units is ranked third in the world in military spending. The technology and weaponry which is used by the Saudi military is one of the most modern one, and most of the other countries in the region can hardly compete in modernization with the Saudi’s, with the exception of Israel. Although being rich and having a highly modernized army, Saudi Arabia heavily relies on overseas partners for its security and assistance in military training and development. The main allies of this Gulf monarchy are France, the U.S. and the UK; this summer alone, the Saudis spent around 4-5 billion dollars on London’s arms expo also known as DSEI. Therefore why is YouTube full of videos posted by sparsely equipped Houthi rebels showing state-of-the-art US-manufactured weapons belonging to the Saudi military being easily blown up by Russian-made anti-tank missiles?

If numbers were all that mattered in terms of military effectiveness, the Saudis should not have had any problems in Yemen. The Royal Saudi Land Forces (RSLF) number some 75 thousand soldiers organized into 9 armored and mechanized brigades plus support units, with a total of about 600 MBTs (including 200 M1 Abrams-family tanks), nearly 800 IFVs (half of which are US M2 Bradley vehicles), supported by hundreds of towed and self-propelled artillery pieces. The Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) numbers an additional 100 thousand troops organized into 9 or 10 brigades which are however predominantly equipped with light armored vehicles. The Saudi military potential is rounded out by its powerful navy with numerous frigates and corvettes, and also the air force with 7 squadrons  of F-15 fighters, 3 squadrons of Tornado strike aircraft, and 2 squadrons of Eurofighter Typhoon multirole fighters. It is an extremely impressive force that would be the envy of many a European power, not to mention regional Middle Eastern ones.  What these numbers fail to convey is that Saudi Arabia has never been tested by war. Even its participation in the Operation Desert Shield/Storm was largely token in nature, which led international defense experts to speculate that perhaps not all is well with the Saudi defense establishment. But it took the war in Yemen to reveal the full scale of these problems.

There are 233,500 active servicemen in Saudi’s military:

  • Army 75,000;
  • Navy 13,500;
  • Air Force 20,000;
  • Air Defense16,000;
  • Industrial Security Force 9,000;
  • National Guard 100,000
  • Paramilitary 15,500.

Saudi Arabia's Armed Forces - Military Analysis

Royal Saudi Army 75,000 total personnel with the HQ in Riyadh.

Forces by role:

Maneuver – Armored4 armored brigades • Mechanised: 5 mechanized brigades • Light: 1 Royal Guard regiment • Air Manoeuvre: 1 airborne brigade • Aviation: 1 command (1 attack helicopter brigade, 1 transport helicopter brigade)

Combat Support – 1 artillery brigade

Equipment by type:

MBT 600: 200 M1A2/A2S Abrams; 400 M60A3

RECCE 300 AML-60/AML-90

AIFV 780: 380 AMX-10P; 400 M2A2 Bradley

APC (T) 1200 M113A1/A2/A3

APC (W) 150 M3 Panhard;

PPV 73 Aravis

ARTY 771 • SP 155mm 224: 60 AU-F-1; 110 M109A1B/A2; 54 PLZ-45 • TOWED 50: 155mm 50 M114.

MOR 437 • SP 220: 81mm 70; 107mm 150 M3 • TOWED 217:  81mm/107mm 70 incl M30 120mm 147: 110 Brandt; 37 M12-1535.

AT – MSL 2,240 • SP 290+: 90+ AMX-10P (HOT); 200 VCC-1 ITOW • MANPATS 1,950: 1,000 M47 Dragon; 950 TOW-2A.

AD – SAM 1,100+ • SP Crotale • MANPAD 1,000: 500 FIM-43 Redeye; 500 FIM-92A Stinger.

RADAR – LAND AN/TPQ-36 Firefinder/AN/TPQ-37.

HelicoptersATK 12 AH-64 Apache • MRH 21: 6 AS365N Dauphin 2; 15 Bell 406CS Combat Scout • TPT Medium 58: 12 S-70A-1 Desert Hawk; 22 UH-60A Black Hawk; 24 UH-60L Black Hawk.

Saudi Arabia's Armed Forces - Military Analysis

Royal Saudi Navy 13,500 total personnel (3,000 Marines) with the HQ in Riyadh, Eastern Fleet HQ is stationed in Jubail and Western Fleet HQ is stationed in Jeddah.

Equipment by type:

Principal Surface Combatants: 7

  • DestroyersDDGHM Al Riyadh with 2 quad lnchr with MM-40 Exocet Block II AShM, 2 8-cell VLS with Aster 15 SAM, 4 single 533mm TT with F17P HWT, 1 76mm gun
  • Frigates: FFGHM Madina with 2 quad lnchr with Otomat Mk 2 AShM, 1 octuple lcnhr with Crotale SAM, 4 single 533mm ASTT with F17P GWT, 1 100mm gun.

Patrol and Coastal Combatants: 69

  • Corvettes: FSG Badr with 2 quad Mk140 lnchr with RGM-84C Harpoon AShM, 2 triple 324mm ASTT with Mk 46 LWT, 1 Phalanx CIWS, 1 76mm gun
  • PCFG 9 Al Siddiq with 2 twin Mk 140 lnchr with RGM-84C Harpoon AShM, 1 Phalanx CIWS, 1 76mm gun
  • PB 56: 17 US Halter Marine; 39 Simmoneau 51.

RSN Marines (3,000)

  • 1st Marine Battalion (Jubail, Eastern Province)
  • 2nd Marine Battalion (Qadimah, Mecca Region)

Saudi Arabia's Armed Forces - Military Analysis

Royal Saudi Air Force 20,000 total personnel is stationed across seven air bases: King Khalid air base (Khamis Mushait), King Fahad air base (Taif), King Abdulaziz air base (Dhahran), King Khalid military city (Al Kharj), Prince Sultan air base (Al Kharj), King Faisal air base (Tabuk), Prince Abdullah air base (Jeddah).

Forces by role:

Fighter: 1 squadron with F-15S Eagle  4 sqn with F-15C/D Eagle

Fighter/Ground Attack: 2 squadrons with F-15S Eagle • 3 squadrons with Tornado IDS/Tornado GR1A  2 sqn with Typhoon

Airborne early warning and control: 1 squadron with E-3A Sentry

ELINT: 1 squadron with RE-3A/B Beech 350ER King Air

Tanker: 1 squadron with KE-3A

Transport: 3 squadrons with C-130H Hercules; C-130H-30 Hercules; CN-235; L-100-30HS • 2 squadrons with Beech 350 King Air

Transport Helicopter: 4 squadrons with AS532 Cougar (CSAR); Bell 212 (AB-212); Bell 412 (AB-412) Twin Huey (SAR)

Training: 3 squadrons with Hawk Mk65; Hawk Mk65A • 1 squadron with Jetstream Mk31 • 1 sqn with Cessna172; MFI-17 Mushshak • 2 squadrons with PC-9

Saudi’s Air Force has around 300 combat capable aircrafts.

Saudi Arabia's Armed Forces - Military Analysis

Air Defence Forces 16,000 total personnel

Forces by role:

Air Defence: 16 batteries with PAC-2; 17 batteries with Shahine/AMX-30SA; 16 batteries with MIM-23B I-HAWK; 73 units with Crotale/Shahine

Equipment by type:

AD – SAM 1,805  SP 581: 40 Crotale; 400 FIM-92A Avenger; 73 Shahine; 68 Crotale/Shahine • TOWED 224: 128 MIM-23B I-HAWK; 96 PAC-2 • MANPAD 500 FIM-43 Redeye • NAVAL 500 Mistral

GUNS 1,070 • SP 942: 20mm 92 MI 163 Vulcan30mm 850 AMX-30SA • TOWED 128: 35mm 128 GDF Oerlikon

Saudi Arabia's Armed Forces - Military Analysis

National Guard 100,000 total personnel with HQ in Riyadh is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the National Guard instead of the Ministry of Defence.

            Forces by role:

Manoeuvre – Mechanised: 4-5 mechanized  brigades • Light: 5 infantry brigades

Combat Support – 1 MP battalion

Equipment by type:

RECCE 214 LAV-AG (90mm)

APC (W) 808: 119 LAV-A; 30 LAV-AC; 296 LAV-CC; 73 LAV-PC; 290 V-150 Commando

ARTY 333+ :

– SP 155mm 116 CAESAR

– TOWED 108: 105mm 50 M102;155mm 58 M198

– MOR 109+ 81mm120mm 119 LAV-M*

AT – MSL – SP 183 LAV-AT • MANPATS TOW-2A; M47 Dragon

AD – GUNS – TOWED 160: 20mm 30 M167 Vulcan90mm 130M2


ARV 111 LAV-R; V-150 ARV

Royal Saudi Air Force Combat Aircraft Squadrons:

2nd Wing – Taif Airbase, Mecca Region

  • 3rd Squadron RSAF – F-15C (air defense)
  • 10th Squadron RSAF – Typhoon (multirole fighter)
  • 34th Squadron RSAF – F-15C (air defense)

3rd Wing and 11th Wing – King Abdul Aziz Airbase, Dhahran, Eastern Province

  • 7th Squadron RSAF – Tornado IDS (attack)
  • 13th Squadron RSAF – F-15C (air defense)
  • 75th Squadron RSAF – Tornado IDS (attack)
  • 83rd Squadron RSAF – Tornado IDS (attack)
  • 92nd Squadron RSAF – F-15S (multirole fighter)

5th Wing – King Khaled Airbase, Khamis Mushayt, Asir Region

  • 6th Squadron RSAF – F-15S (multirole fighter)
  • 55th Squadron RSAF – F-15S (multirole fighter)
  • 99th Squadron RSAF – Cougar MKII (combat support)

7th Wing – King Faisal Airbase, Tabuk Region

  • 2nd Squadron RSAF – F-15C (air defense)

Saudi Arabia's Armed Forces - Military Analysis

Royal Saudi Land Forces (RSLF) headquartered in Riyadh

King Khaled Military City, Eastern Province

  • 45th Armored Brigade
  • 8th Mechanized Brigade
  • 20th Mechanized Brigade

King Faisal Military City, Tabuk, Tabuk Region

  • 12th Armored Brigade
  • 6th Mechanized Brigade

King Abdul Aziz Military City, Khamis Mushayt, Asir Region

  • 4th Armored Brigade
  • 10th Mechanized Brigade
  • 11th Mechanized Brigade

Support Units:

  • 8 Independent Artillery Battalions

Saudi Royal Guards:

  • 1st Battalion RG – King Faisal Military City, Tabuk, Tabuk Region
  • 2nd Battalion RG – King Abdul Aziz Military City, Khamis Mushayt, Asir Region
  • 3rd Battalion RG – King Khaled Military City, Eastern Province

Saudi Arabia's Armed Forces - Military Analysis

Saudi Special Forces  (confirmed participation in the Yemeni conflict) :

  • RSLF Airborne Brigade – Riyadh: 2 Parachute Battalions and 3 Special Forces Companies
  • RSN Maritime Security Units – deployed with Western and Eastern fleets

Saudi Arabia's Armed Forces - Military Analysis

In March 2015, Saudi Arabia launched a military operation called “Decisive Storm”,  part of the operation is conducted in the South of the country in the Najran province. The deployments in the Najran province are drawn both from the Royal Saudi Land Force (RSLF) and the National Guard (SANG), with Brigadier General Muhammad Ali Shahrani leading the units. The operation should have primarily targeted Houthi rebels which have managed to cross the border and are making foothold inside the country. The main problem with this Saudi military deployment is the lack of coordination between the RSLF and the SANG, while the RSLF falls under the jurisdiction of Ministry of Defense, the SANG is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior Affairs.  In addition, whereas the RSLF is the country’s “official” military, in actuality the most favored military force in the kingdom is the SANG which is recruited from among the most loyal tribes in Saudi Arabia. This creates a certain mismatch between RSLF and SANG. As noted above, the RSLF on paper boasts an extremely impressive military arsenal. What the raw numbers do not show is that in many instances Western powers supply equipment with suitably downgraded characteristics (Saudi M1 Abrams tanks, for example, are not up to the same level of equipment and armor protection as vehicles issued to the US forces), and moreover the RSLF is heavily dependent on Western contractors for equipment maintenance. The RSLF training regimen is also not sufficient to allow its troops to fully realize their potential.

The reason for the disparity between RSLF’s paper and actual strength is political. To put it bluntly, the Saudi monarchy does not trust its military, and the main reason the kingdom has that level of equipment has less to do with military considerations than, again, political ones. Saudi defense contracts are a way by which to “launder” petrodollars back into Western economies. This allows Saudi Arabia to escape criticism, let alone sanctions, for its support of international terrorism (Al Qaeda, Al Nusra, and others), not to mention for its human rights record. The recent stories concerning Saudi Arabia’s alleged interest in procuring Russian weapons were in the same category–the proposed arms deal was Saudi Arabia’s effort to bribe Russia into abandoning its support for the legitimate Syrian government.

This while the RSLF is the “paper” military which exists as a holding pool for military equipment that it can never fully use but which provides the kingdom with a certain level of prestige and possibly a ready pool of replacements for US forces in the region should the need arise, the SANG is the more important military force which is less well equipped but better trained and motivated, and whose mission includes keeping a watchful eye on the RSLF.

That arrangement worked very well as long as the main security threats to Saudi Arabia was civic unrest either domestically or in adjacent countries (for example, in Bahrain), but has broken down now that the Saudis are actually facing a competent and motivated if ill-equipped military adversary, namely the Houthis. The RSLF lacks the military prowess to fight that kind of a war, especially in difficult mountain terrain, and the SANG lacks the heavy firepower. Effective coordination between the two forces might solve that problem, except that they mistrust one another and furthermore the Saudi monarchy fears the political consequences of allowing these two forces growing too close to one another.

Houthi rebels are making the most of these built-in obstacles to Saudi military effectiveness. In the past two weeks, the Houthi forces launched around nine ballistic missiles towards Saudi’s military positions while evading any military attempts to destroy missile caches and launch machinery. Constant raids across the border have proven to be difficult and are taking its toll on the military and the civilian population in the region. After failing in their task to prevent further escalation in Yemen and letting it spill all-over across their border, the Saudi regime is likely preparing a direct attack against the Houthi leaders. As some reports suggest, the actions will be carried out by the special forces, supported by the Air Force. At first glance, this plan may seem as a good idea, crushing the leadership of the Houthi rebels will ultimately end the struggle in Yemen, allowing Saudi Arabia to contest this important geo-strategic region. On the other hand, the Houthi rebels aren’t the only force which wages battles across Yemen. Al Qaeda in Yemen (AQIY) and the rise of the Islamic State in this country are becoming major problems not only for the opposing factions in Yemen, but for the external factors as well. Yemen is a country of importance for the global geo-strategic players, and especially for the regional countries. Controlling the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea Yemen has an enormous influence on Saudi’s oil trade. Also further escalations in Yemen can have an effect of spillover to Somalia and Eritrea, more or less unstable countries with a lot of potential of becoming new hot spots for terrorists.

Since the Houthi hopes in the UN peace talks are little, the Al Houthi leader Abdul Malik al Houthi criticized the UN for a pro-American and pro-Saudi bias in a speech on December 23. Partners such as Russia and China are rather interesting options as negotiators in the Yemeni conflict for the Houthi rebels. The former president Ali Abdullah Saleh met with the Russian ambassador to Yemen on December 23 and, as some reports indicate, the former president of Yemen is now urging Russia to intervene in the negotiation process. With their successful operations in Syria, Russia has gained a lot of leverage in the Middle Eastern crisis and their influence in Yemen can additionally be spread by sending humanitarian aid. Of course any Russian involvement in the Yemeni conflict will further divide the policies and relations with Saudi Arabia, especially since the incident with the Shia cleric and the arson of Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran.

SF’s comment: By November 5, 2017, the Saudi-led coalition had been still unable to achieve any success in the conflict in Yemen. The Houthi-Saleh alliance controls the capital and a large part of the country. Furthermore, it conducts successful attacks against Saudi targets in Yemen and at the Saudi-Yemeni border on a contant basis.

Saudi Arabia's Armed Forces - Military Analysis

Despite this modernized and large arsenal, the military capabilities of Saudi Arabia are not that impressive. The conflict in Yemen is testing those capabilities and the leader of the newly appointed Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, who pushed the idea of military intervention in Yemen. Although the intervention may seem as a rapid action which can pull the Saudis into an unprepared conflict, the regime was well-aware and had plans for it back in 2012 when they bought large amounts of military equipment and supplies from the US. This deal between Saudi Arabia and the US is worth over 60 billion dollars in full-life costs over the next 15-20 years, the deal includes 84 F-15SA combat aircraft, 190 helicopters, more than 12,000 missiles and 15,000 bombs and many upgrades in the Saudis Air Force. Signing this deal, Saudi Arabia is clearly marking its territory on the Arabian Peninsula and sending an open message to Iran that the proxy wars which are raging across the Middle East will continue in the future.

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