Thursday, 1st August 2019

Saudi Arabia: MoD transformation falters

Three years into an ambitious plan to transform the Ministry of Defence (MoD)’s operational effectiveness, the programme is running into trouble as the initial enthusiasm dissipates. The transformation programme is an important element in the Vision 2030 strategy, as Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS – also defence minister ) regards the MoD as being in the vanguard of his plans. Doubts about the armed forces’ command and compliance structures are a further complication at a time when the kingdom is under pressure from Houthi attacks from Yemen and concerns that further escalations of tension in the Gulf could leave the kingdom under fire from Iran. Recent deployments of more Patriot missile batteries and a return of US boots on the ground at Prince Sultan Air Base were not on the Vision 2030 agenda, but are now under way.

A key feature of the defence transformation plan has been to create a Joint Force Command (JFC), to co-ordinate the involvement of all Saudi forces engaged in operational activity. The need for this was highlighted by incidents in the early days of the Saudi-led Yemen war. A JFC has been created – and the co-ordination of forces in the Yemen theatre has much improved – but the new command structure has still not been fully manned. The Royal Saudi Land Forces (RSLF) and other services are reluctant to commit their best officers to the new organisation, preferring to preserve their own on-the-ground operational control.

Other areas of transformation have faltered too. After an initial burst of enthusiasm for a new objective selection process, RSLF and other commanders are withholding officers from being considered for posts in the new structure. The JFC cannot operate effectively until fully manned and led by commanders with the requisite drive, as well as technical and managerial skills. To make matters worse, GSN’s soundings suggest that the new objective selection system’s first senior beneficiaries are tending to disown the structure because they want to bring in their own teams to fill subordinate posts in their new departments, just as their predecessors did.

One reform seems particularly stuck: the planned merger of the Royal Saudi Air Defence Force (RSADF) and Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF), to create a new Royal Saudi Air and Space Force. The merger was considered a logical progression by the MoD’s external advisors, as both forces have a role to play in controlling the same air space. What the consultants didn’t recognise is that the RSADF and RSAF already effectively co-ordinate their activities, and that cultural and environmental factors make the two organisations uneasy bed-fellows. Both forces can claim they are effectively dealing with high-end defence tasks and that a merger could jeopardise existing operational efficiency.

Neither is the timing favourable: while the RSADF’s future as an independent service has been under review, the kingdom has faced a substantially increased threat from drones and missiles fired from Yemen. Under pressure from the Houthis and concerned that further escalations could leave the kingdom under fire from Iran’s substantial missile assets, Riyadh is seeking comfort in the deployment of additional US-manned Patriot batteries; this is likely to be followed by more Saudi orders for systems of their own and upgrades to older electronic counter-measures which are vulnerable to Houthi radar-honing drones.

This is aligned with President Donald Trump’s agenda for boosting American jobs and profits, and highlights the extent that Riyadh is dependent on a Pax Americana. Trump ran counter to his usual reluctance to commit boots on the ground with the announcements in May and June that a 2,500-strong reinforcement would be deployed to the region in response to rising tensions with Iran; that was followed in July with confirmation of 500 US troops being sent to Prince Sultan Air Base near Riyadh, a development which made headlines world-wide.

As part of this package, US Patriot batteries will supplement existing Saudi air defence assets to counter the principal threat, which is perceived as Iran’s large inventory of medium-range ballistic missiles – which might otherwise overwhelm Saudi defences should tensions in the Gulf escalate into an open conflict.

Unlike the last substantial American deployment in 1990, the return of US troops has not led to any public response in the kingdom. On MBS’s watch, the religious police, who were then a catalyst for conservative complaints, are now firmly under control and Saudis are circumspect in using social media to advertise Islamist or anti-western views. When the local English-language daily Arab News profiled imprisoned Muslim Brotherhood adherent Awad Al-Qarni in late July – parts of its ongoing ‘Preachers of Hate’ series – some saw it as potentially a prelude to his execution, but others saw it as a signal to clerics not to repeat his criticisms of US intervention in the 1990s, when Al-Qarni was a professor at Imam Mohammed Ibn Saud Islamic University, a focus for anti-western sentiment.

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