Saudi Arabia Orders $600M+ National Command System
In late November 2012, Raytheon announced a $600+ million contract to deliver a national-level Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence (C4I) system to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Raytheon Network Centric Systems was awarded the deal as a Direct Commercial Sale, which means that the Saudi Ministry of Defense will manage the buy and the implementation project themselves. This is in contrast to the Foreign Military Sale process, which routes contract negotiations and management through a selected department of the US military.
None of this is any kind of magic. Poor command and poor training, coupled with the best C4I system money can buy, just means that your military can watch itself lose conventional fights in near-real time. Having said that, a system that removes some of the “fog of war” can help a force possessing basic or better competence, and national-level C4I is critical to any nation considering missile defense. So, what do the Saudis want?
A National System
The truth is, it’s very hard to know what the Saudis want, because they don’t talk about it much.
On the missile defense front, Saudi PATRIOT and Hawk batteries lack the reach of the THAAD missile defense systems ordered by the Saudis’ neighbors in the UAE, and requested by fellow Gulf Co-operation Council member Qatar. Even so, a modern national C4I system linked to the kingdom’s ground radar network would improve the Saudis’ existing ABM point defense system, and make it easier for them to successfully use any future THAAD order.
On a more conventional note, airpower is the kingdom’s most important military asset. Modern national C4I would also help them tie together information from advanced RSAF surveillance assets like their E-3/RE-3 jets, and Saab Erieye turboprop AEW&C. That, in turn, feeds into a better ability to command their advanced fighter fleet of F-15s, Eurofighters, and Tornados.
A truly national C4I system could even tie into the information coming from their border surveillance system, which is contracted to EADS. As other countries have discovered, however, true integration is difficult even on a national level. Even with a budget of over $600 million, it’s wise to temper expectations of what the Saudis can do. Especially in a political system with many local players looking for their cut of the proceeds.
A Regional System?
Beyond Saudi Arabia, this C4I modernization raises regional questions. What we’ve seen over the past few years is a wave of major modernizations throughout the Gulf Co-operation Council, encompassing advanced radars, missile defense, command systems, and fighter aircraft. The Saudis are actually several years behind the UAE, which has coupled its missile defense push with substantial investments in a national-level C4I system from EADS, and Saab Erieye AEW&C planes of their own. Meanwhile, the Saudis are upgrading on multiple fronts, Bahrain is buying BMD-capable radars, and Kuwait is buying advanced PATRIOT missiles.
On a regional level, the question is whether some or all of these investments by Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE can be combined into a larger whole. C4I systems provide the required “glue,” if agreements and financed work allow national assets to be linked across borders. Even then the question is, linked to whose systems? Or can the various C4I systems link together in an overarching framework, creating a widely-shared picture?
If national-level integration is hard, this kind of regional integration is much harder. Even within a framework like NATO, many European countries have discovered challenges in fighting beside each other, and especially in fighting beside the Americans, due to gaps in command and control.
The alternative to a truly regional GCC system is a set of modernized piecemeal assets, with limited or no connectivity to each other. So far, that seems to be the preferred option for GCC countries. It still represents regional progress, of course, and multiple C4I systems ensures a certain level of redundancy and autonomy in case of hostilities with an enemy like Iran.
It would appear that regional integration will need the USA to link these assets and emerging centers to its own cutting edge command systems, creating the missing piece of this regional puzzle for activation as needed. This has long been the USA’s informal role, but instantiating it in technology would offer a strong regional boost, along with a form of quiet but very significant military influence.
Whether the GCC countries are willing to allow this is a question for the diplomats.