Two separate developments last month have underlined an effort by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to considerably enhance its air defense capabilities. The potential deals involved—one with the U.S. and one with Russia—also appeared to signal a desire by the Kingdom to keep its arms supply options open.
Following on from President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May, the U.S. State Department approved the potential sale of the Lockheed Martin THAAD (terminal high-altitude area defense) system to Saudi Arabia in a deal potentially worth $15 billion. The approved sale covers seven Raytheon TPY-2 radars, 16 fire control and communications mobile tactical systems, 44 missile launchers and 360 interceptors.
THAAD is primarily an anti-missile system, employing hit-to-kill interceptors that destroy their targets by kinetic energy alone. If the deal is concluded, Saudi Arabia will follow the UAE in becoming a THAAD customer, with both nations eyeing Iran’s growing ballistic missile capability as a major threat.
At the same time as the THAAD approval was announced, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud was in Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. During these discussions an agreement-in-principle was reached covering the supply of the Almaz-Antey S-400 long-range air defense system. A source within the negotiating team reported that Riyadh intends to purchase “at least four batteries” for a price of around $2 billion.
During the visit the two countries signed an agreement for licensed production of small arms. Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI) has also indicated a desire to participate in the production of the S-400 should it be procured, although there is some skepticism as to whether Russia would release S-400 technology for local production. Another factor that has dogged previous Russian arms sales to Saudi Arabia is the Kingdom’s intentions to link any acquisitions to agreement on the Russian part not to supply the same equipment to Iran.
If the Saudi sale proceeds the country would become the third overseas customer for the system, following China and Turkey. The first batteries for Turkey are due for delivery in late 2019. In the meantime, Russian forces have deployed an S-400 battery to Khmeimim airbase near Latakia in Syria. This move was made following the shooting down in November 2015 of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24M attack aircraft by a Turkish F-16 in a disputed airspace incursion incident.