Sep 30, 2014 | 09:00 GMT

5 mins read

Gulf Cooperation Council Members Continue to Build Air Force Capabilities

A Saudi air force demonstration squad flies in formation at a 2010 air show in Manama, Bahrain.
(ADAM JAN/AFP/Getty Images)

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member countries have long been saddled with particular military weaknesses stemming from geographical and demographic constraints. As a result, these countries have generally sought close alliances with the United States as the ultimate guarantor of their security. At the same time, council members such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have increasingly sought to build up their individual capabilities over the past two decades. This heavy investment — particularly in their air forces — has begun to pay dividends as the council members seek to protect themselves from the fallout of a U.S. rapprochement with Iran and endeavor to project their own power abroad.

During the first Gulf War, the Saudi air force by all accounts underperformed in combat, while other GCC member air forces, including those of Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, maintained very mediocre capabilities. Since then, essentially all the member countries have prioritized the development of their air forces. This made sense for a number of reasons: It provided these countries with the flexibility to rapidly engage targets across vast distances. Air power is less personnel-intensive for the manpower-challenged Gulf countries, making air forces easier to staff with loyal personnel. This development also carried a significant element of prestige.

Developing capable air power has not been easy, and all the council member air forces continue to struggle with significant weaknesses. But each country has leveraged time, funds and alliances to gradually enhance its air capabilities. Today, the Saudi, Qatari and Emirati air forces are far more capable than they were during the first Gulf War. As can be seen with UAE strikes in Libya, Saudi operations over Yemen and coalition strikes in Syria, the council members are also increasingly willing to use their air power.

Over the past two decades, perhaps the strongest advantage in air power development has been close alliances with major air powers such as the United States, France and the United Kingdom. Gulf countries have leveraged these partnerships to acquire equipment, design training programs and develop doctrines for their air forces. Though largely lacking in combat experience, council member air forces have benefited from sustained participation in premier joint air force drills such as the U.S.-run Red Flag and Green Flag exercises, as well as training with European air forces through deployments to countries like the United Kingdom and Spain. Emirati pilots have been particularly impressive at these exercises. The United Arab Emirates is even referred to as "Little Sparta" in certain U.S. defense circles due to its outsized capabilities.

Meanwhile, after investing hundreds of billions of dollars in their air forces over the past two decades, GCC states now operate some of the most sophisticated aircraft exported by the United States and Europe. These include Saudi Arabia's Eurofighter Typhoon and the Emirati F-16E/F Desert Falcon, which are even more capable than U.S.-operated F-16s. Indeed, most of the council members' combat aircraft are generations ahead of the aircraft operated by regional rivals such as Iran and Syria.

The council members have also sought to develop other key capabilities. For example, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have acquired significant strategic airlift capacity, and the Saudis and Emiratis have continued to develop airborne early-warning systems. Efforts are ongoing to improve air defense suppression capabilities through training, while Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have acquired anti-radar missiles from the United States. 

Persistent Weaknesses

Despite considerable progress, key problems continue to weaken GCC member air forces and intensify their dependence on the United States when carrying out elaborate air campaigns. Some of the biggest obstacles involve logistics and aircraft maintenance. Saudi Arabia is particularly dependent on foreign contractor support and depot maintenance to run its large arsenal of highly sophisticated aircraft. While the Saudis have demonstrated a basic capability in ground crew operations, they cannot maintain a high readiness level for long durations. To a lesser degree, this issue continues to affect the other Gulf air forces as well.

Another key weakness is the council's lack of strategic intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. This is crucial in providing early warning and in target selection, as well as assessing battlefield damage after strikes have been carried out. Persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities are also critical when targets shift from large stationary marks to fleeting battlefield ones, such as when searching for vehicles, enemy fighting positions or even single fighters escaping on foot. While the United States can call on a plethora of assets ranging from manned and unmanned systems to satellites, the monitoring capabilities of council members remain largely limited to a few manned and unmanned systems operated by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, none of which can match sophisticated systems like the U-2, Global Hawk and RQ-170 aircraft operated by the United States.

Finally, though council members, especially the Saudis and the Emiratis, have invested in aerial refueling capabilities, their capacity for supporting strike aircraft at long ranges is very limited. Recent satellite pictures of Al Udeid air base in Qatar, for instance, aptly highlight the issue. The United States deploys more than two dozen KC-135 aerial refueling tankers there, more than twice the number of strategic tankers available to all GCC member air forces combined. Given that tactical aircraft are highly dependent on aerial refueling tankers for long-range deep strike missions, council members will remain dependent on U.S. tankers for sustained operations — in Syria for instance — unless they stage from closer airfields in Jordan or Turkey. 

Despite these limitations, Gulf air forces have clearly come a long way over the past two decades. Intensified and persistent collaboration with the United States and Europe, massive investments in and acquisitions of highly advanced aircraft and technologies, and an increasing determination by regional governments to develop indigenous capabilities as Washington moves closer to Tehran have fueled this progress. And as GCC confidence in its air capabilities rises, it will become increasingly willing to use its offensive firepower in missions like those seen recently in Yemen, Libya and Syria. 

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