How A U.S. Arms Embargo Could Impact Saudi Arabia’s Air Force

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In Washington, anger with Saudi Arabia over the Opec+ decision to cut oil production has resulted in renewed calls and proposed legislation for at least a temporary ban on American arms sales to the kingdom.

Bicameral legislation put forth by Senator Richard Blumenthal and Representative Ro Khanna proposes an immediate pause to all arms sales to Riyadh. It also calls for “a one-year halt to all direct commercial sales and foreign military sales and munitions” that “includes a halt to sales of spare and repair parts, support services, and logistical as well as program support.”

The officials point out that the vast majority of Saudi armaments are American-built. An embargo, they argue, would, therefore, hugely impact the Saudi military and it would take years for Riyadh to reduce its reliance on U.S. military technology, parts and support.

“They cannot move further towards Russia and China in the near term,” Khanna told PBS. “They — it would take almost 10 years for them to get be able to get the weapons that we provide, just because of interoperability of these weapons, and, literally, the air force would be grounded to a halt tomorrow if they didn’t have American technicians.”

“Without U.S. assistance to service its air force, Saudi Arabia’s entire fleet would be grounded within months, since foreign weapons systems are generally not interchangeable with U.S. systems and cannot be substituted for them,” Blumenthal argued in a recent article for Foreign Affairs.

The premier aircraft and backbone of the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) is undoubtedly its large fleet of modern F-15 fighter bombers. When Saudi Arabia intervened in the Yemen conflict and began its bombing campaign in early 2015, it immediately experienced problems. In some instances, Saudi ground radios couldn’t communicate with the jets and Saudi fighter pilots had to fly low enough to receive their targets via cellphone! The United States also provided inflight refueling for Saudi jets during that war and later billed Riyadh for that critical service.

While anecdotal, incidents like these suggest that the RSAF would immediately face serious issues if the U.S. pulled its support. However, aside from F-15s, the Saudis also operate a sizable fleet of non-American Eurofighter Typhoons and older Panavia Tornados.

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Consequently, the imposition of an American arms embargo doesn’t necessarily mean the entire RSAF would quickly become grounded, although its capabilities would undoubtedly become markedly reduced. And Riyadh would probably have alternatives other than Russia and China for fighters if the U.S. halted arms sales indefinitely. For example, France might welcome the prospect of Riyadh buying Dassault Rafales. It’s worth remembering that the Carter administration favored selling Saudi Arabia its very first F-15s — an unprecedented and highly controversial deal hotly debated in Washington at the time — because Riyadh showed its willingness to turn to France for an equivalent number of Mirage F1s if refused those American jets.


“Saudi Arabia could always follow the UAE (United Arab Emirates) example and purchase different types of weapons systems from different suppliers,” Nicholas Heras, director of strategy and innovation at the New Line Institute, told me. “The advantage to that approach is that it can minimize the risk that political differences with a particular supplier can pose to having access to advanced weapons systems.”

Nevertheless, he pointed out that the downside of such an arrangement is “that all those systems from different suppliers might not operate together as well, or suppliers might not have the best maintenance and resupply programs for those weapons systems, as it would be from the United States.”

“The United States has a massive defense industry that can supply weapon systems, maintain weapons systems, and resupply weapons systems, often quicker than its competitors in other countries,” he said. “Saudi Arabia is a platinum customer for the U.S. defense industry, which means that American weapons suppliers like Saudi business.”

Ryan Bohl, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at the risk intelligence company RANE, concurs with Blumenthal and Khanna’s shared assertion that it would take years for Riyadh to adequately replace its American hardware, especially advanced jets.

“It takes years to train pilots on specific equipment (two years on the F-16, for example), plus new hardware from other countries could come with language barriers that military institutions would have to adjust to,” he told me. “Additionally, pilots would also take years to get used to new equipment (flying an F-16 is quite different than a Rafale or Eurofighter), wasting years of pilot experience on U.S. systems.”

“However, if the U.S. did order an (unlikely) full cut off of military aid to Saudi Arabia, the Saudis could continue to conduct limited missions for a time with their U.S. equipment, but they would become increasingly risky without U.S. maintenance support,” he said. “Likely, for safety, the Saudis would voluntarily ground most if not all of their U.S.-built air force until the dispute was resolved.”

“The Saudis could readily shift to using more of their Typhoon and Tornadoes for military missions if needed while they awaited a resolution of such a hypothetical U.S.-Saudi diplomatic dispute,” he added.

Even in the face of an embargo, Bohl doubts that the U.S. would likely try to prevent Saudi Arabia from diversifying its military arsenal by acquiring weaponry from American allies.

“There might be more political repercussions like more threats to reduce U.S. military aid to the Kingdom, but it’s not in the U.S. interest to completely cut Riyadh off from international arms sales (and thereby weaken Riyadh against Iran),” he said. “This would also likely upset allies’, who also want arms sales to the Gulf, also contributing to why it’s unlikely.”

On the other hand, Washington would react very differently if Riyadh turns to either Moscow or Beijing for its military hardware.

“While Russian equipment is unlikely right now, given the war in Ukraine using up much of Russia’s military hardware, if Riyadh did pivot towards China, the U.S. would be more likely to escalate to the use of its CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) sanctions against Saudi Arabia,” Bohl said.

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