If war broke out with Iran, there’s no doubt the U.S. would do the heavy lifting. The British and French would contribute but to what degree is impossible to predict. Depending on how the conflict erupted, the Chinese might very well back American action, given that country’s dependence on Persian Gulf oil and Iran’s stated willingness to close the Strait of Hormuz. But it’s hard to imagine Beijing contributing hardware or firepower.
Switching optics from the international scene to the regional level: few local powers could contribute if the contest came to blows. Even Israel’s participation is not guaranteed. Israeli action would depend on the availability of air space and whether or not they shot first or were dragged in later–if at all. If the U.S. were to cement a Gulf Arab-American front, complemented by Europe or even a UN mandate, chances are the participation of Arab states would force Israel to stay on the bench. There remains one key exception when considering who might contribute something tangible, and it may surprise many: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia could and most likely would play a major role in any conflict, given its proximity, interests, capabilities, and vulnerabilities.
Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 shocked the world. Within Saudi Arabia, that shock led King Fahd to accelerate arms purchases and expand training with foreign militaries. While Saudi Arabia’s armed forces are considerably smaller than Iran’s, they remain far more advanced. It’s worth remembering too that Iran’s ability to project violence beyond its borders is limited although coastal facilities along the Gulf are within striking distance.
Saudi Arabia’s military is focused on airpower, land-based air defenses, the Yemeni border, and coastal areas along the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. Advanced weapons systems, especially those deployed by the air force, are the hallmark of the Saudi posture. This is a natural consequence of Saudi Arabia’s small population and manpower deficiencies: the kingdom’s entire population is less than 29 million—Iran’s is roughly 66 million. Active Saudi forces total 233,500. This includes: 75,000 army units; 13,500 members of the navy; 20,000 airmen; 100,000 national guardsmen; and 25,000 tasked with defending airspace and vital industries).*
Saudi Arabia’s current weapons systems should sound familiar to Americans. These include: M1-A2 Abrams battle tanks; UH-60A Black Hawk helicopters; F-15 fighter jets; American-built armored personnel carriers (APCs); TOW anti-tank guided missile launchers; Badr-class missile frigates; Harpoon anti-ship missiles; minesweepers; Patriot surface-to-air and anti-ballistic missile platforms; as well as five E-3A AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control Systems). Complementing these systems and others are guided munitions and sophisticated surveillance and targeting equipment.
Simply owning the tools does not make one a master craftsman of course. Questions linger about competency and Saudi Arabia’s ability to fight effectively. Much of this apprehension is natural since the Saudis have, to date, accumulated little fighting experience. The only yardstick of any military is its performance in the field. Most recently, Saudi forces were deployed to Bahrain in March, where they protected key facilities, thus freeing up the ruling family of the small island kingdom to crackdown harder. But there’s no evidence they took a “hands-on” approach. Before that, Saudi forces saw real action along their southern border after Houthi rebels from northern Yemen crossed into Saudi territory in 2009.
American-made weapons took the lead in what many believe was Saudi Arabia’s biggest military test since the Gulf War. The scale of the conflict, which lasted from November 2009 through January 2010, was limited but valuable for inexperienced units. The military’s performance did, however, reveal real deficiencies. After three difficult months, the Saudis won an undeclared ceasefire.
Any future conflict with Iran would be defined by Tehran’s use of asymmetric tactics. The key difference between fighting insurgents, such as the Houthi rebels, and Iran, however, is that the Islamic Republic has much more to lose. The Houthis do not represent a state; they have no infrastructure and must be leveraged in the field because their numbers are so few. Iran possesses vulnerable assets that could be struck repeatedly—these include sites within Iran like government offices, stationary bases, supply depots, etc. Saudi Arabia’s military capabilities are geared towards conventional conflict, meaning they could strike Iran with a similar rate of success as the U.S.
THE NEXT TEN YEARS
Today’s technology gap will only grow in the coming decade. The Saudis are expected to receive 84 new F-15 fighter jets. And, although the radar included with the jets is not yet confirmed, any upgrade would allow the Saudis to identify Iranian targets. 70 F-15s will be refurbished according to the agreement, thus allowing older models to achieve parity with new aircraft. New surface-to-air missiles will allow Saudi forces to strike from the same distance and with the same accuracy as their American counterparts. Up to 60 Longbow Apache attack helicopters will also be included. These systems would allow for speedier and nimbler action against Iran’s forces in shallow waters along the Gulf coast. Patriot anti-ballistic missile (ABM) batteries will be upgraded accordingly and will provide Saudi Arabia with better defenses against incoming missiles. And, finally, new ships will improve Saudi Arabia’s defenses against the IRGC and its navy, should those forces get passed American battle groups and try and attack an oil export terminal like Ras Tanura.
Also worth mentioning are ambitious plans now being developed by the new Saudi Defense Minister, Prince Salman. David Ignatius revealed on Nov. 18 that the Saudis were planning to double the size of their military over the next 10 years. According to Ignatius, “The doubling of ground forces is partly a domestic employment project, but it’s also a signal of Saudi confidence.” He also suggested, and other accounts confirm, that Prince Salman deserves his reputation as a “strong manager.” “This contrasts with what foreign analysts say was the loose discipline (and occasional corruption scandals) under his predecessor, Prince Sultan, who died in October after 48 years as defense minister,” Ignatius wrote. No doubt the Saudis are trying to close the numbers gap with Iran while widening the tech gap. Renewed professionalism, heightened expectations, and a sense of real danger have all combined to push the Saudi military in the right direction, at the right time, whether you’re watching events unfold from Riyadh or Washington.
CIRCUMSTANCES AND RESPONSIBILITIES
How Saudi Arabia is drawn into a conflict will dictate what options are tabled in Riyadh. These scenarios seem the likeliest: the U.S. could strike Iranian nuclear facilities first, Iran might then respond by attacking sensitive Saudi oil facilities along the Gulf coast and ports where American ships anchor; Iran could close the Strait of Hormuz if its economic situation became truly desperate, thus encouraging Saudi Arabia to respond along with the international community; Iranian-sponsored terrorism could even claim the lives of Saudi nationals, thus forcing the Kingdom to consider action with the expectation that the U.S. would offer assistance.
These circumstances matter because they would dictate the level of Saudi mobilization and their mission. In the event that the Strait of Hormuz was closed and swarmed with Iranian ships, it’s hard to believe the Saudis would offer the Fifth Fleet much help. Instead, the Saudis would most likely focus on their own border security, oil facilities, and the coast. While such a mission seems narrow given the international implications of a conflict in the Gulf, it would allow the U.S. to move against Iran without expending energy on defending Saudi territory. The Saudis could do this themselves.
Iran could also attack Saudi Arabia for replacing its share of the oil market. Iranian officials have already warned the Kingdom to reconsider their pledges to make up for any supply shortfall, with Iranian crude coming under increased sanctions. Saudi Arabia’s mission would naturally expand if Iran attacked Saudi oil facilities. It’s entirely possible that a strike on a key Saudi installation or the loss of many Saudi lives would prompt King Abdullah to insist on a bigger role for Saudi forces. Given their technical prowess and sizable fleet of fighter jets, the Saudi Air Force would take on offensive responsibilities, and add to America’s already devastating array of systems in the area.
*All data is from the 2010 edition of IISS’ The Military Balance.