With assistance from US, Saudi Arabia has established potent air defence network


US-supplied air defence systems and joint military drills ensure the readiness of Saudi forces against persistent cross-border unmanned aerial system and ballistic missile attacks.

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A member of the US Air Force looks on near a Patriot missile battery at the Prince Sultan air base in Al-Kharj, Saudi Arabia, in 2020. [Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP]
A member of the US Air Force looks on near a Patriot missile battery at the Prince Sultan air base in Al-Kharj, Saudi Arabia, in 2020. [Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP]

Following years of defence partnership exchanges and joint trainings between the United States and Saudi Arabia, the kingdom is now protected by a state-of-the-art air defence network capable of defeating a host of emerging threats.

As part of this decades-long relationship, US, Saudi and other Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) partner nations began exercise Eagle Resolve 23 at the Air Warfare Centre in the Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia, on Sunday (May 28).

Eagle Resolve 23 is a scenario-driven command post exercise linked with field training exercises and senior leader seminars.

It is designed to develop and employ a Combined Joint Task Force capable of responding to the complexity of regional threats by developing a regional approach for Integrated Air and Missile Defence (IAMD).

US and Saudi military personnel train together during Eagle Resolve 23 on March 25. [CENTCOM]
US and Saudi military personnel train together during Eagle Resolve 23 on March 25. [CENTCOM]

"CENTCOM is committed to strengthening military-to-military relations throughout the region," said Gen. Michael "Erik" Kurilla, commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM).

"Exercises like Eagle Resolve provide opportunities to demonstrate US-Saudi military co-operation and deepen interoperability across the GCC all while advancing the security and stability in the Middle East," he said.

Eagle Resolve 23 integrates many military assets and missions, including a live fire event involving ground-based air defence assets and live flying aircraft against unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

Brig. Gen. Uqab bin Awad al-Mutairi, commander of the joint task force, said the participating forces will implement a number of theoretical and practical exercises, the Saudi Press Agency reported.

These include air and missile operations with live ammunition, defensive counter-air operations, air-to-air refueling operations, surface-to-naval warfare operations, electronic warfare, naval incursions, and defence against weapons of mass destruction, he said.

Air defence systems

US-supplied air defence systems are continuing to help protect Saudi Arabia from a range of regional threats.

For decades the US military has protected skies above the Gulf country, and the two nations continue to work together as the United States remains the leading partner in Saudi Arabia's defence acquisition and training programme.

The latest such deal occurred in 2022 when the United States announced the sale of major missile defence systems to the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia bought 300 Patriot MIM-104E (PAC-2/GEM-T) missile systems, which can be used to bring down long-range incoming ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as attacking aircraft, the US State Department said.

The value of the missiles and attendant equipment, training and parts is $3.05 billion, the department said.

Saudi Arabia has faced years of rocket threats from Yemen's Houthis, who have been supplied with Iranian equipment and technology.

"These missiles are used to defend the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's borders against persistent Houthi cross-border unmanned aerial system and ballistic missile attacks on civilian sites and critical infrastructure in Saudi Arabia," the State Department said at the time of the sale.

PAC-3 upgrade

The MIM-104 Patriot, the US Army's primary air and missile defence system, is used by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar, among other nations, according to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

The Patriot missile defence system consists of six major components: a missile, launcher, radar set, control station, power generator unit and high-frequency antenna mast.

The PAC-3 (MIM-104F) upgrade of the Patriot system, initially fielded in 2001, significantly increased Patriot capabilities with upgraded missiles and use of the Link 16 communications system.

PAC-3 Cost Reduction Initiative (CRI) missiles are hit-to-kill interceptor systems as opposed to the earlier PAC-2 blast fragmentation interceptors, according to the Missile Defence Advocacy Alliance (MDAA), a non-governmental organisation.

A modified Patriot launcher can fire 16 PAC-3 CRI missiles and target eight inbound ballistic missiles, using the two-shot method that aims to guarantee destruction of the target.

A Patriot battery of six launchers can defeat 48 ballistic missiles, which represents an estimated one-third of Iran's short and medium range launch capability.

Patriot crews can reload in a fraction of the time Iranian crews need to reload a ballistic missile launcher.

The even more advanced PAC-3 Missile Segment Enhancement (PAC-3 MSE), fielded in 2015, features larger, dual pulse solid rocket motors; larger fins; and upgraded actuators and thermal batteries to achieve greater speeds and manoeuvrability for defeating more-advanced ballistic and cruise missiles.

Aided by other improvements to guidance, structure and software, the PAC-3 MSE -- the only PAC-3 missile in production -- can defend a significantly larger area than its predecessors could.

Current Patriot launchers can hold up to 12 PAC-3 MSE missiles or a combination of six MSEs and eight CRI missiles.

Previous co-operation

In 2017, the United States signed a $350 billion, 10-year arms deal with Saudi Arabia that began with an immediate $110 billion in US sales to the kingdom.

As part of the deal, the two countries signed two military contracts totalling more than $1.4 billion to counter any threat from Iran and help support the long-term security of US partners in the Gulf region.

This included a $750 million contract to train the Saudi air force, working with a variety of US contracted firms.

It also included $662 million that the kingdom would spend on 26 AN/TPQ-53(V) truck-mounted medium-range radar systems, which can pinpoint enemy mortar and missile batteries, AFP reported.

Also in 2017, the US government approved the sale to Saudi Arabia of the advanced Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile defence system for $15 billion.

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