November 17, 2015
The tragedy of Paris this past weekend may eventually prove to have been the beginning of the end for the Al-Baghdadi Gang in Al-Raqqah. Wantonly attacking the citizens of two UN Security Council members in a week wasn't just heinous, it was stupid. So if the Coalition air forces have been running through a lot of ordnance pummeling troops and infrastructure, the pace is only stepping up. Getting them the weapons, though, hasn’t been easy. As Air Force Secretary Debbie James stressed at last week’s Dubai Air Show, her department has been trying to speed up its part of the export review process. Some of the bureaucratic anguish is about maintaining Israel’s “qualitative military edge” (QME), an American policy since 1968, and a matter of law since 2008. At a certain point, however, obsession with Israel’s security undermines American efforts to help Arab states help themselves, and Arab security calls out for whatever America can reasonably send.

This week, it’s the Saudis who are buying a lot of bombs. As noted by Andrea Shalal at Reuters, the US State Department has just approved the sale of 22,000 bombs, including 5,000 GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) from Boeing, and 1,000 laser-guided Paveway IIs from either Raytheon or Lockheed Martine. The total bill will come to about $1.29 billion. The Houthis are absorbing a lot of damage, and now there will be more coming their way. It’s not clear just when that request went in, but we can imagine how the interagency ground its gears on this one. As William Wunderle and Andre Briere of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy noted in a paper in 2008, the process by which State and Defense have sought to determine just what might breach that QME hasn’t always been rigorous. But it’s important to remember that a qualitative edge doesn’t necessarily demand a quantitative edge, so at least large munitions sales have been getting through.

The United Arab Emirates, after all, have been getting resupplied with what they need. Back in October 2013, the Defense Department reported to the Congress that the UAE had applied to undertake a huge shopping trip with American weapons manufacturers: 5,000 of Boeing’s Small Diameter Bombs, 1,200 of Raytheon's JSOW-C glide bombs, and 300 of Boeing’s SLAM-ER cruise missiles. The Emiratis already had gobs of Textron’s Sensor-Fuzed Weapons—antitank cluster munitions that can take out whole squadrons of vehicles at once. The UAE Air Force also already had the fighter-bombers to drop them: about 79 F-16E/F Desert Falcons, and 68 Mirage 2000s. If the $4 billion price tag seems remarkable, it's an understandable expense for fending off savagery.

It’s true that at one point, much of the Arab world had large air forces. Egypt still does. But these days, some of the less developed countries are spending much more on their armies than their air forces, because their security problems are mostly internal. The lingering big inventories of old aircraft will not be replaced; outside the Gulf, none of the countries can afford it. Consider that the Libyan Air Force under Qaddafi had about 400 jets—rather few of them flyable, of course. Even before the place fell apart, according to the Libyan Herald and other sources, the long-term plan for the Libyan Air Force included only 30. Those squadrons upon squadrons were built up only because the Soviets were spending about 25 percent of their GDP on military hardware, and giving a lot of it away at “friendship prices”. That gravy train left the station twenty-five years ago. It's not just that the inventories today aren't going to be replaced; after 1989, they were never going to be replaced.

The mere size of an air fleet and its munitions, of course, hardly captures its military power. In “Lessons from Ground Combat in the Gulf: the Impact of Training and Technology” (International Security, Fall 1997), Daryl Press argued that training is what matters most, given reasonably good equipment. In Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle (Princeton University Press, 2006), Stephen Biddle argued that what matters is actually a closely coupled combination of training and technology. There is the separate problem that bombing can prevent al-Baghdadi’s maniacs from taking any more territory, but only boots on the ground can take the territory back. So far, those boots have been mostly Kurdish, and while the Peshmerga are tough, they are not legion.

So bean-counting doesn’t produce a meaningful answer, for few Middle Eastern countries can handle even the equipment they’ve got today. When planes are needed in Syria, Assad gets a fighter-bomber regiment direct from Russia. The regime probably doesn’t have the absorptive capacity to fly even another two dozen jets on its own. But there’s a marked contrast in what’s happening in the Gulf States. The Emirates have already figured out how to integrate drones into their airspace, while the FAA in the more spacious USA cannot. There was the arms deal signed with Ukraine in February—a rare show of support for the embattled European state. Alenia is pitching  gunships to the Emirati air marshals, and for good reason, they’re interested. That sale of V-22 Ospreys has been rumored for about three years now, and there’s an understandable need. Indeed, American arms makers are setting up not just sales offices, but the beginnings of more serious facilities. For as my colleague Bilal Saab has written, along with Saudi Arabia, the UAE is one of the few places in the Arab world with a budding arms industry.

Indeed, that confluence of capabilities is already far ahead of what most countries in the region can manage. Almost everywhere else, either the armed forces lack the institutional capacity to wage modern war, or their treasuries lack the monies to pay for it. In some cases, it’s both, and that doesn’t add up to too a worrisome threat to Israel. But that also means that if the Emirates and the rest of the GCC can continue to improve their military performance by concentrating on training, doctrine, and organization, they should be able contain threats with much less outside assistance. Together, they have almost the population of Iran, and more disposable income. At this point, if Iran is no longer the clear and present danger, Daesh is. Either way, since 1991, we've known that tanks and technicals coming across the desert make really good targets for precision weapons. So let’s continue to get them the weapons they need.

James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.



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