Saudis countdown to Typhoon service entry

With four aircraft now flying at BAE Systems' Warton aerodrome, and with the first four Royal Saudi Air Force pilots having completed training at RAF Coningsby, the Saudi Eurofighter Typhoon programme is gathering pace. A formal handover of the first aircraft is expected in the UK during June 2009. Jon Lake reports.

When the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia signed up for the purchase of 72 Eurofighter Typhoons, in a deal that was publicly confirmed on 17 September 2007, it represented the most important fighter procurement in the Middle East for decades. It will give the Royal Saudi Air Force the most modern and most capable fighter in the region, and will crown the ongoing drive to modernise the force.


Saudi Arabia was always expected to be an early export customer for Typhoon, following the Kingdom’s long and successful use of other British aircraft types, from the Strikemaster, Hunter and Lightning to the Hawk and Tornado. The UK Government's Defence Export Service Organisation has headed a long campaign to facilitate the export of the Eurofighter to Saudi Arabia – arguably the UK’s most important ally in the Middle East, and the UK's biggest customer for defence equipment.

There were reports that Britain had proposed a £1.5 billion package, including an order for 50 Typhoons (with 50 options) and it was reported that an initial order for 24 aircraft was “imminent” in July 2004.

But it was not until December 2005 that the Saudi Arabian and UK Governments announced the signing of the ‘Understanding Document’ that underpinned the Typhoon purchase, establishing a Saudi-British Defence Co-operation Programme (SBDCP). This 2005 document was a government-to-government pact funded through the Saudi Arabian defence budget, and saw the UK and Saudi Arabia committing to “a greater partnership in modernising the Saudi Armed Forces”.

BAE Systems again acted as the UK Government’s prime contractor, as the company had done during the two-part Al Yamamah oil-for-arms programme. These had earned an estimated £43bn, making them Britain's biggest ever Defence export deals.

The UK company’s extended industrial presence in Saudi Arabia is such that the kingdom is one of six nations described by BAE Systems as 'home markets' (alongside Australia, South Africa, Sweden, the UK and the United States).

BAE Systems and its predecessors (BAC and BAe) has had a presence in Saudi Arabia since 1973, and is one of the largest companies in the Saudi industrial sector, currently employing more than 5,000 people. More than half are Saudi nationals.

A contract for the acquisition of 72 Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft (together with training, support and technology transfer agreements) was finally signed on 29 August 2007, and this was publicly confirmed on 17 September 2007. The new deal is known as 'Project Salam'.

The UK Ministry of Defence highlighted the fact that "Saudi Arabia continues to be an important strategic ally for the UK in the Middle East, playing a moderating leadership role in promoting regional stability”, and emphasised that “this new defence co-operation programme builds on a long and successful relationship between the UK and Saudi Arabian governments and their armed forces".

Under the terms of the contract, substantial investment by BAE Systems was promised in the Saudi aerospace industry, with the aim of stimulating new in-kingdom industrial capability, and with the establishment of a partnered support approach between BAE Systems and Saudi industry, including the development of a dedicated engineering and manufacturing infrastructure and the establishment of a Centre for Arab Excellence.

Local press reports in Saudi Arabia suggested that some 15,000 local jobs would be created in the Kingdom as a result of the project.

In particular, Alsalam Aircraft and AEC (which already supported the Tornado, Hawk and PC-9) were expected to receive “substantial logistical and training packages”.

From an early stage, it became apparent that the Al Salam programme would involve an unprecedented degree of defence technology transfer to a Middle Eastern country, including the establishment of a Typhoon assembly line in Saudi Arabia. Though the first 24 Typhoons ordered for the Royal Saudi Air Force would be diverted from a UK Royal Air Force order, and would thus be assembled at BAE Systems’ Warton plant, the remaining 48 aircraft (including six two-seaters) would be assembled in-country.

The Riyadh-based Alsalam Aircraft Company, a joint venture between Boeing, Saudi Arabian Airways and Saudi Advanced Industries Company, was originally expected receive the contract to assemble the aircraft at a “yet to be built” facility in Taif in southwest Saudi Arabia, as part of a strategy to bring high-technology jobs to under-developed areas of the Kingdom. The Alsalam company has a long and distinguished history of military aircraft support for the RSAF, and has played a major role in supporting the Hawk and Tornado in Saudi service.

But Boeing had effectively taken a majority stake in Alsalam Aircraft in 2006, posing some difficulties to BAE and the Eurofighter consortium.

In an effort to overcome any problems posed by Boeing ownership of Alsalam in ensuring the required technology transfer problems from BAE Systems and its European Eurofighter partners to Project Salam, a physical separation of the facilities was proposed.

Major overhaul of the RSAF’s Tornado fleet has already been moved from Alsalam’s headquarters at Riyadh to a new BAE Systems-built facility on a 300,000 sqaure metre site at King Abdulaziz Air Base, Dhahran in Eastern Province. This has hangarage for up to 20 aircraft, stores for hazardous materials, workshops, fuel storage, a water desalination plant and power station. Defence and Aviation Minister Crown Prince Sultan laid the foundation stone for the new centre in March 2008.

The full facility is expected to be completed by August this year, though part of the development is already open and in use for Tornado work.

In country Typhoon work is scheduled to begin in “late 2010”, with the first locally assembled aircraft expected to be delivered in 2011.

By March 2008 it was reported that plans for the assembly of these Typhoons would be finalised within “the next two months”, amid warnings that time was running out to establish the new assembly line.

Talks between Alsalam Aircraft and BAE Systems were said to be proceeding well, though there was no firm contract, and local manufacturing content, site location, workforce issues and long-term support still had to be finalised.

Mohammed Fatallah, chief executive and managing director of Alsalam reportedly said that his company hoped to begin work on the Typhoons in late 2010, “but that’s still an RSAF/BAE decision. We want to transfer real technology here. But any deal must make economic sense for me, my partners and the RSAF."

From RAF to RSAF
To meet Saudi timescales, the first 24 RSAF Typhoons (18 single-seat and six trainers) are aircraft that were taking shape on the production line for the British Royal Air Force. The RSAF will actually take the bulk of the RAF’s allocation of early Tranche 2 (Block 8) aircraft – including eight of the first fifteen single seaters, and six of the first eight two-seat Typhoons. Though identical to RAF aircraft, the Saudi aircraft may be designated at FGR.Mk 50s and T.Mk 51s, rather than using the RAF’s FGR.Mk 4 and T.Mk 5 designations. The 24 aircraft diverted to the Saudis will be replaced at the end of Tranche 2 production.

The first RSAF Typhoon, painted in full Saudi markings, and painted in the desert Kingdom’s distinctive new two-tone camouflage, made its maiden flight on 20 October. This first flight was achieved just 13 months after Riyadh had signed a firm contract to acquire the Typhoon. Subsequent RSAF Typhoons (four are now flying) remain unpainted.

In keeping with what one programme insider described as the Saudis’ “over-arching principal – we want exactly what the RAF get”, the first Royal Saudi Air Force pilots and groundcrew are being trained by the RAF, in the UK. The first four Saudi pilots have already completed training with No.29 (Reserve) Squadron at RAF Coningsby (the Typhoon operational conversion unit) and between four and 18 more Saudi pilots will follow them).

The first Saudi Typhoons are expected to be delivered to the Kingdom in June 2009, after a ceremonial handover in the UK. It may be no coincidence that the RSAF’s ‘Saudi Hawks’ aerobatic team are expected to be in the UK at the same time.

It is expected that the first Typhoons will be operated by a re-formed No.10 Squadron, whose badge already decorates the tailfin of the first aircraft. No.10 Squadron is expected to operate from Riyadh (King Khaled Air Base), having previously flown F-5Es from Taif.

Desert Warrior

The Royal Saudi Air Force is acquiring the Typhoon just as the type is reaching maturity with its initial European customer air forces.

The Royal Air Force declared its Typhoon force operational in the air-to-ground role on July 1 2008, subsequently gaining clearances to drop live weapons. This Multi Role Operational Employment Date (MR OED) followed the conclusion of a series of exercises and operational trials in the American Southwest, which saw the RAF Typhoon force prove its air-to-ground capabilities.

In Late March 2008 No.17 (Reserve) squadron deployed to NAS China Lake to conduct an intensive period of air-to-surface trials, including releases of eight Enhanced Paveway II and 67 freefall 1,000-lb 'dumb' bombs, as well as strafing ground targets using the 27-mm cannon. Following these trials one aircraft and two pilots then joined No.11 Squadron at Davis Monthan AFB, Arizona, to participate in Torpedo Focus – a major air-to-ground exercise that saw the Typhoon Force drop another 67 bombs - 16 1,000-lb dumb bombs, 43 Paveway IIs and eight Enhanced Paveway IIs. The Typhoons achieved a 99.3 per cent strike during this exercise, before participating in exercise Green Flag at Nellis AFB in Nevada.

As Arabian Aerospace closed for press, the RAF’s No.3 Squadron was participating in Exercise Magic Carpet in Oman, flying realistic swing-role missions against Royal Air Force of Oman F-16s in a realistic operational environment in the Middle East. The aircraft

More Typhoons required?
Though there is no formally stated requirement for additional Typhoon aircraft beyond the 72 now on contract, and though programme sources dismissed reports of a Saudi requirement for an additional 40-60 Typhoons at the Farnborough Airshow in July 2008, the initial 72 aircraft are sufficient only to replace the RSAF’s ageing Tornado ADVs, and some of the air force’s oldest single-seat F-15Cs.

The oldest of the F-15s have now been in service for 29 years, and many of the Saudi F-15Cs have reportedly “amassed more flying hours than average”. Several aircraft have already been withdrawn from use, and one is already an exhibit in the RSAF’s excellent museum in Riyadh. Though Boeing remain outwardly confident that the F-15 will remain a pillar of Saudi air power, others are less sure. The Saudi F-15 procurement was marked by restrictions on aircraft numbers, basing, and electronic warfare capabilities (all imposed to avoid offending Israeli sensibilities) and the ability to acquire Typhoons to ‘full RAF standards’ marks a real and greatly valued contrast. Standardising a larger element (if not the whole) of the RSAF’s frontline fast jet fleet around the Typhoon would allow a dramatic increase in both capability and autonomy. The acquisition of further Typhoons would also provide a greater return on the investment already made in the IKIP (In Kingdom Industrial Programme) that will see 48 of the 72 aircraft now on order being assembled in-country.

Crown Prince Sultan, First Deputy Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia, and Minister of Defence and Aviation since 1962, reportedly declared an intention for the RSAF to have “200 plus” Typhoons in RSAF service by 2015.

In August 2008 the UK's Sunday Times reported that BAE Systems was in talks with the Saudi government for a second tranche of Eurofighter Typhoons. The paper quoted unnamed defence industry executives as intimating that this second batch was likely to consist of 48 or 70 aircraft. And reported that “senior staff from the [UK's Ministry of Defence] department recently visited Saudi Arabia to discuss the deal”.

The Saudi Defence Ministry declined to comment on the report.