Record arms deal helps repair US relationship with Saudi

The Eagle has landed to boost Boeing's business in the Kingdom.

At the end of last year the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified Congress of a possible foreign military sale to the Government of Saudi Arabia - if carried out, this will be the USA’s largest-ever single foreign arms deal, worth an estimated $60bn, over the next five to ten years.

About half that sum ($29.432bn) will pay for the supply of some 84 new F-15SA fighter-bombers, and for the upgrade of about 70 surviving F-15S aircraft to the same standard.

The RSAF has enjoyed a long and generally happy relationship with Boeing’s F-15. It received a total of 75 F-15C air superiority fighters and 23 examples of the dual-control but fully-operationally-capable F-15D trainer.

The two-seat F-15S Strike Eagle fighter-bomber has formed a key element in RSAF strike power since the mid-1990s, and the type now equips squadrons at Dhahran (92) and Khamis Mushayt (6 and 55). During the recent fighting with Houthi insurgents along the Saudi Arabia-Yemen border and in the northern Yemeni Sa’dah region, the F-15S played a key role.

Though the F-15S (like the USAF F-15E on which it is based) is a true multi-role/swing-role fighter, the RSAF (like the USAF) has not exploited the type’s considerable air-to-air potential. However, with the 78 or so surviving F-15C and F-15D Eagles now showing their age, and with the RSAF increasingly moving towards multi-role platforms, replacing these aircraft with more Strike Eagles has become an increasingly attractive option.

Thus, the new arms deal notified to Congress by the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency included 84 F-15SA ‘Saudi Advanced’ fighter-bombers, as well as an upgrade that would see the 70 surviving RSAF F-15S multi-role fighters brought up to the same F-15SA configuration.

The deal also covers the provision of a US-based fighter training squadron using 12 of the new F-15SA aircraft, as well as a range of infrastructure construction and refurbishment programmes to support F-15SA operations in-kingdom.

Following Boeing’s high-profile launch of its ‘Silent Eagle’ configuration in March 2009, it became clear that Saudi Arabia was interested in the new variant, though it remains unclear as to the extent to which the new F-15SA will incorporating some or all of the features associated with the F-15SE Silent Eagle. This is particularly in respect of the structural and materials changes that reduce the radar cross-section of the Silent Eagle and contribute to its low observability, and in respect of the F-15SE’s conformal weapons bays (CWBs), which replace the ‘standard’ Eagle’s conformal fuel tanks (CFTs).

But early speculation that the F-15SA would be a downgraded derivative of the Korean F-15K ‘Slam Eagle’ has certainly proved incorrect, and the F-15SA will be the most advanced and most capable Eagle version when it enters service.

The original batch of Saudi F-15S aircraft were originally delivered with Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-229 engines, but these proved problematic, ingesting the fine sand in the air which then melted going through the hot section. When the engine cooled, the molten sand solidified into glass on the thermal barrier coatings in the hot section, and eroded the coatings.

Pratt & Whitney reportedly recommended that the best solution would be to reduce the thrust and temperature settings. The deputy minister of defence and aviation, Prince Khaled, replied: “I did not buy the F-15 to have it fly like a F-5.” Saudi Arabia, therefore, turned to General Electric – its competing F110-GE-129 did not suffer the same problem – and re-engined all of its Eagles.

Pratt & Whitney bought back the used engines rather than have them dumped on the market. General Chuck Horner, the former Desert Storm air commander and a consultant for General Electric, remembered that the whole re-engine programme was to have paid for itself in about six years due to the reduced need to both replace engine modules and borescope the engines.

The Saudi F-15SA will be the first Eagle variant to be fitted with the BAE Systems North America digital electronic warfare system (DEWS) originally proposed for the F-15SE Silent Eagle, which combines and integrates a digital radar warning receiver, digital jamming transmitter, integrated countermeasures dispenser and an interference cancellation system so effectively that the aircraft will be able to jam enemy radars even as its own radar and radar warning receiver (RWR) continue to operate.

The F-15SA will use third-generation LANTIRN Tiger Eye navigation pods and AN/AAQ-33 Sniper targeting pods, and the fleet will be compatible with remotely operated video enhanced receivers (ROVER), which allows seamless communications with suitably equipped ground forces, including forward air controllers.

For the air-to-ground role, the F-15SAs are due to be supplied with 400 AGM-84 Block II HARPOON anti-ship missiles and 600 AGM-88B HARM anti-radar missiles, as well as 1,000 Paveway IV 500-lb dual mode laser/global positioning system (GPS) guided munitions, and 1,000 2,000-lb dual mode laser/GPS guided munitions, 1,100 2,000-lb GBU-24 PAVEWAY III laser-guided bombs, 1,000 2,000-lb GBU-31B V3 joint direct attack munitions, 1,300 CBU-105D/B sensor fused weapons (SFW)/wind corrected munitions dispensers (WCMD), 1,000 500-lb Mk 82 general purpose bombs, 2,000 2,000-lb Mk 84 general purpose bombs and 200,000 rounds of 20-mm ammunition.

The deal also includes training weapons, including 50 inert CBU-105s, 6,000 inert Mk 82s, 2,000 Mk 84s, and 400,000 rounds of 20mm ammunition.

The aircraft will be supplied with 462 joint helmet-mounted cueing system helmets and 338 joint helmet-mounted cueing systems (JHMCS). The aircraft will be armed with the AIM-120C7 advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles (AMRAAM), 500 of which are being supplied, together with 300 short-range, IR-homing AIM-9X missiles. Training missiles and air combat manoeuvring instrumentation pods are also being supplied.

The 84 new-build F-15SAs should allow the re-equipment of three front-line squadrons, effectively doubling the current fleet.

By 2020, we can expect the Royal Saudi Air Force to field three squadrons with 72 Eurofighter Typhoons, tasked with air dominance and (after 2015) air-to-ground operations, and there will also be six squadrons with approximately 154 F-15SAs, operating as multi-role (air defence, interdiction, reconnaissance, SEAD/DEAD, and anti-ship) fighter bombers.

The F-15SA deal represents a further ‘normalisation’ of relations between the USA and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which had frayed in recent years, especially following the revelation that 15 of the 19 ‘9-11’ hijackers were Saudi nationals. More importantly, the F-15SA programme will forge closer links between the kingdom and the USA, with greater interoperability with the USAF and a lasting support and training relationship.

The US view is that the proposed sale will enhance its national security objectives by strengthening America’s strategically vital on-going relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and that it will facilitate greater “burden sharing” with its allies in the maintenance of regional security, especially in the light of developments in Iran.