Phoon a friend?

Has the Saudi decision to buy Boeing F-15 Strike Eagles put an end to the hopes for the Eurofighter Typhoon or is there more going on behind the scenes. Jon Lake investigates.

When the US Department of Defense notified Congress that its proposed $60bn arms deal with Saudi Arabia included 84 F-15SA Strike Eagles, many analysts and observers assumed that spelled the end for the long-expected second order for the Eurofighter Typhoon.

It was assumed that the Saudis had become disillusioned with the aircraft, or with their relationship with the UK, or both.

Saudi Arabia had originally turned to the Eurofighter Typhoon to form the centrepiece of its plan to modernise the Royal Saudi Air Force, by giving the RSAF the most modern and most capable fighter in the region.

It also cemented the kingdom’s strategic alliance with the UK, building on the two-part, £43bn Al Yamamah oil-for-arms programme, under which Saudi Arabia had received 120 Tornados, 50 Hawks, 50 PC-9s and two Jetstream 31 trainers. These had been Britain’s biggest-ever Defence export deals.

When the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia publicly confirmed its order for 72 Eurofighter Typhoons on September 17 2007, a second order for the type was widely expected. In 2005, even before the first order had been confirmed, Crown Prince Sultan, First Deputy Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia and Minister of Defence and Aviation since 1962, reportedly declared his intention for the RSAF to have “200 plus” Typhoons in RSAF service by 2015.

Under ‘Project Salam’ (originally referred to under the codename ‘Rohan’), the UK Government agreed to supply 72 Typhoons to Saudi Arabia, with BAE Systems acting as the UK Government’s prime contractor. BAE Systems was to provide comprehensive support and the UK Royal Air Force was to train RSAF pilots and ground crew at RAF Coningsby, alongside its own personnel.

But, by August 2008, there were widespread reports that the UK Government was in talks with Saudi Arabia for a £4-5bn deal for a second batch of 48-72 additional Typhoons. Inevitably, when dealing with reports about Saudi Arabian military procurement, much reliance was placed on speculative and sometimes unattributed reports, and while there was no confirmation of a second Saudi Typhoon order, it was widely expected.

The reports of an impending order for 84 F-15SAs were, therefore, widely taken as evidence that Typhoon’s further prospects in the kingdom had been torpedoed. It seemed as though the RSAF had placed an unexpected order for what is widely believed to be a less capable fighter-bomber, instead of ordering more Typhoons.

The question on everyone’s lips was what had dislodged Britain as the RSAF’s supplier of choice, and what had dimmed the Saudi fervour for the Typhoon?

Though only the most senior staff within Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Defence and Aviation (MODA) know exactly what, if anything, has blunted the kingdom’s enthusiasm for the Typhoon, the obvious conclusions were drawn. It was assumed that there was a fundamental dissatisfaction with the aeroplane itself, and/or there was a similar dissatisfaction with the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the UK.

Though the Saudis are said to be delighted with the performance, handling and agility of their Typhoons, they reportedly have some concerns about the aircraft. The Tranche 2 Typhoon still has minor problems and shortcomings, and these have not yet been completely solved.

The Saudis are believed to be frustrated by the delayed introduction of a full air-to-ground capability, by the delays to the aircraft’s helmet sight (Helmet Equipment Assembly – HEA), and by the delayed introduction of the aircraft’s PIRATE infra red search and track system – all of which mean they feel that the jets received are not the aircraft they were sold.

But, more important than these shortcomings with the aircraft (which are, after all, being rapidly addressed and solved), may be problems with the underlying relationship with the UK.

The Saudi Typhoon programme was always seen as being a means by which the development and growth of an indigenous Saudi aerospace and defence industry could be stimulated, with a high level of local industrial participation providing and sustaining thousands of local jobs.

Under the terms of the original ‘Project Salam’ contract, Saudi Arabia was promised substantial investment in its indigenous aerospace industry. It was intended that the first 24 Typhoons ordered for the Royal Saudi Air Force would be diverted from a UK RAF order, and would be taken from the BAE Systems’ Warton plant, but that the remaining 48 aircraft would be finished on a Typhoon assembly line in Saudi Arabia. There was also to be a partnered support approach involving both BAE Systems and Saudi industry.

It was initially expected that the later Saudi Typhoons would be assembled at a new facility in Taif by the Riyadh-based Alsalam Aircraft Company, in an effort to take high value, high-technology jobs to under-developed areas of the kingdom.

However, Alsalam is a joint venture between Boeing, which has a majority stake, Saudi Arabian Airways and the Saudi Advanced Industries Company, and this complicated plans somewhat.

In an effort to overcome any problems posed by Boeing’s part ownership of Alsalam, the decision was taken that the aircraft would be assembled in a dedicated ‘Typhoon Technical Zone’ within the new BAE Systems-built, RSAF-owned maintenance facility at King Abdulaziz Air Base, Dhahran.

Saudi assembly was scheduled to begin in the ‘second quarter’ of 2010, to ensure delivery of the first locally assembled Typhoon in 2011. But there is no evidence that this has happened, with reports of “repeated hold-ups by Saudi Arabia regarding the choice of a build site”. Arrangements are not believed to have been finalised and, to meet RSAF schedules, at least some of the 48 Typhoons that were originally meant to have been assembled ‘in-country’ will now have to be built at BAE’s Warton facility. It is also increasingly likely that any Typhoons assembled in the kingdom will be kit-built, ‘finished’ rather than ‘built’ in Saudi Arabia.

There have been reports that the UK may have tried to persuade Riyadh that its aspirations for full local assembly are unrealistic and that attempts have been made to convince the Saudis that local participation in through-life support for the aircraft would be a more realistic ambition, and one that would confer greater benefits than those that might accrue from a narrow focus on final assembly.

But the failure to establish full local assembly from the 25th Saudi Typhoon onwards is believed to have been the cause of great frustration, disappointment and even anger.

Fortunately, in August 2010 – a full year after the local line was originally due to have been completed – BAE Systems finally formally announced that a military aircraft assembling plant would shortly be established in the kingdom, according to Guy Griffiths, international managing director.

Griffiths confirmed that BAE Systems had started training Saudis on Typhoon aircraft assembly at Warton in preparation for the establishment of the Saudi assembly plant and said that the necessary agreements had been signed by the Saudi and British governments.

The Saudis had always placed great value on building a relationship with the RAF’s Typhoon force, and on the importance of receiving training and support from the RAF. According to one programme insider, the Saudis’ “over-arching principal” was that they wanted to receive EXACTLY what the RAF received, with the same aircraft, the same training, and even the same technical publications. Urban legend has it that when BAE was preparing Saudi versions of the RAF’s technical publications, the Saudis went as far as to politely decline the offer to correct some of the poor spelling and grammar in the RAF’s originals!

An initial cadre of 22-24 Royal Saudi Air Force pilots and an unknown number of ground crew were expected to complete training with the RAF, the pilots undergoing conversion with No29 (Reserve) Squadron (the Typhoon operational conversion unit) at RAF Coningsby. Many more were expected to follow over time.

In the event, though, just six Saudi pilots (Colonel Al Shahrani, Lt Colonel Al Ibrahim, Majors Al Amri, Al Hamad, and Al Qahtani, and Captain Al Tamimi) graduated from No29 (Reserve) Squadron before huge increases in the cost of training charged by the UK brought the training programme to a premature end.

Instead of simply paying the ‘marginal cost’ of training the Saudi pilots, covering the actual cost of operating the aircraft (including paying instructors and maintainers) the Treasury insisted that the second batch of Saudi trainees should be charged the ‘real cost’ of training, including a charge for the cost of purchasing relevant capital assets (including infrastructure, as well as aircraft). This reportedly pushed the rate charged for the use of RAF Typhoons at Coningsby from just under £10,000 per flying hour to more than £95,000 per flying hour. The Treasury also insisted that the Saudis should pay commercial insurance rates to cover the RAF Typhoons against loss or damage when they were being flown by RSAF pilots.

“Britain has lost its ability to do ‘soft power’, to project influence by providing training and support to allied air forces,” one very senior RAF officer told Arabian Aerospace. “Other air forces can now routinely undercut our prices when offering training.”

The Saudis soon appeared to have more Typhoons than trained pilots to fly them, and it became clear that alternative arrangements had been put in place. There were rumours that RSAF pilots were being trained by BAE Systems in-country, but this was never confirmed, and then reports emerged that the Saudis had signed contracts with the German, Italian and Spanish air forces to train two Saudi pilots each to allow the RSAF to assess the alternatives.

When a Spanish Typhoon two-seater crashed into the ground moments after taking-off from the base at Moron, near Seville, on August 24 2010, it emerged that the student pilot (who was killed) was a Royal Saudi Air Force lieutenant colonel who was visiting Moron to mark the signing of a training contract between the two nations.

This brought the problem to the attention of Britain’s new coalition government and the Treasury reversed its policy. Removal of the cost obstacle, coupled with language difficulties in Spain and a desire to maintain standardisation with the UK RAF, are believed to lie behind the RSAF’s decision to return to Coningsby. Saudi pilots were expected to restart training at Coningsby before the end of 2010.

Saudi concerns about its relationship with the UK Government may be harder to address than those pertaining to its relations with BAE Systems and the RAF. Feathers may have been irreparably ruffled by the way in which the UK Government dealt with media allegations of bribery in the earlier Al Yamamah contract (the Tornado/Hawk purchase in the 1980s).

With the local production and training obstacles overcome, industry and air force sources in both countries seem sanguine about the Typhoon’s long-term prospects in Saudi Arabia, and negotiations for a follow-on Typhoon buy seem to have been quietly re-started.

New Defence Secretary Liam Fox paid a brief visit to Saudi Arabia on September 24, meeting the King and senior officials and visiting the air base at Taif, where the RSAF’s Typhoons are based – the single-seaters with No10 Squadron and the trainers with No3 Squadron.

“We weren’t expecting an order for a second batch yet and we remain confident that such an order will eventually be forthcoming. Typhoon is far from dead in the kingdom,” one very senior industry source told Arabian Aerospace.

Some believe that the apparent Saudi interest in the F-15SA represents little more than a bargaining ploy, intended to ‘prove’ to the UK Government, Eurofighter GmbH and BAE Systems that the RSAF does have other options, in order to extract the best possible terms and conditions for a follow-on Typhoon order.

Others point to the fact that the first batch of 72 multi-role Tranche 2 Saudi Typhoons are re-equipping units previously equipped with the Northrop F-5E Tiger II, and Tornado ADV, while the new multi-role F-15SAs will replace the RSAF’s F-15C interceptors – if the deal goes ahead at all.

Many believe that the Typhoon, with its superior air-to-air performance and Meteor and IRIS-T missiles, is a better choice for the air-to-air role, and thus a better replacement for the F-15C.

The F-15SA will use the AIM-9X as its short-range weapon and will be limited to the AIM-120C-7 for medium-range use – a weapon with much less ‘reach’ than the more modern Meteor. There is little prospect of Israel’s friends in the US Congress allowing any more advanced missiles to be supplied to Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, the air-to-ground capabilities of the Tranche 2 Typhoon are about to be released via the Expanded Operational Capabilities (EOC 1) package with the SRP12 software load in early 2012. This will give a full swing role capability, using Paveway IV, and will provide an expanded laser designation capability, allowing multiple targets to be engaged during a single pass.

A roadmap of further air-to-ground enhancements is now in place and the SRP14 software load will add StormShadow/Taurus and Brimstone stand-off weapons.

But, even if the F-15SA deal does go ahead, this will still leave a requirement for a replacement for the RSAF’s TSP upgraded Tornado IDS aircraft (which provide the RSAF with its stand-off precision attack capability) from about 2020.

The US-supplied F-15SA cannot adequately replace these, since the US will not integrate the required stand-off weapons (like SLAM ER, AGM-130, and Harpoon) on aircraft it sells to Saudi Arabia. The Tranche 3 Typhoon should be ideally suited to fulfil this requirement.

Though no-one will talk about Typhoon’s regional export prospects on the record, it is clear that there is considerable optimism that the aircraft may find further customers among the GCC nations. Omani interest in the aircraft has been widely reported and looks increasingly likely to result in an order for 18-24 new Tranche 3 aircraft, while Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE are all viewed as strong prospects, notwithstanding the UAE’s selection of Rafale – since this has yet to result in an actual signed contract.