US Shoulders France, Russia Out of Saudi Helicopter Market
(Source:; published Oct. 25, 2010)

By Giovanni de Briganti
PARIS --- Assuming it goes through as planned, the $60 billion arms package for Saudi Arabia notified to the US Congress on Oct. 20 is highly significant in that it clearly signals that the US has finally succeeded in locking two major competitors – France and Russia – out of the Saudi arms market that it is forced to share with the United Kingdom.

Just four years ago, France was on the brink of signing a series of arms contracts with Saudi Arabia covering 148 helicopters, support aircraft and naval ships, and worth an estimated 7 billion euros.

However, French political missteps, combined with new policies adopted by the Saudi government, combined to derail these projects at the last minute, allowing a late offer by Russia for a $2.2 billion package of Mi-171 and Mi-35 helicopters to be accepted by the Saudis. But, although an agreement on this package was signed in October 2007, it was allowed to lapse.

Thus, Congressional notification of the sale of 156 helicopters (36 AH-64D Block III Apaches, 72 UH-60M Black Hawks, 36 AH-6i Little Bird light attack helicopters and 12 MD-530Fs) to the Saudi National Guard, 10 additional AH-64D Block IIIs for the Royal Guard and another 24 for Saudi Land Forces, signals that the Saudi government has decided to put all of its arms procurement eggs in the US basket, at least as far as helicopters are concerned.

It is a spectacular win for the political faction formerly headed by Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz, the Saudi Crown Prince, (Edited to reflect that the faction, Sultan himself having withdrawn from politics because of grave illness--Ed.) deputy prime minister and Minister of Defense and Aviation, whose pre-eminent role in arms purchasing was rescinded by King Abdallah bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud, his half-brother, whose entourage backed closer arms cooperation with Russia.

It is also worth noting that Adm. Edouard Guillaud, the French chief of the defense staff and former military advisor to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, made a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia Oct- 8-10. Guillaud, who in his previous job took a direct hand in promoting French arms exports, appears to have failed in a last-minute attempt to preserve at least some orders for French industry.

In terms of combat aircraft, the US will continue to share the market with the four-nation Eurofighter, of which Saudi Arabia has ordered 72, and with Europe’s EADS, from which Saudi Arabia, as well as the United Arab Emirates, has ordered Airbus A-330 tankers. The Saudi plan to buy 84 new F-15SA fighters, and to upgrade 70 older F-15S already in Saudi service to the same advanced configuration with AESA radars, Infrared Search and Track (IRST) systems and Sniper targeting pods, will cost $29.4 billion, including a massive package of air-launched weapons as well as support and training.

Also of note is the fact that, for the first time, all Saudi ground forces will share the same piece of equipment, namely the Apache attack helicopter, in a reversal of past policy which called for the National Guard and the Land Forces to operate, as far as possible, different equipment.

In total, these new helicopter orders are worth about $31.1 billion, according to the Congressional notifications, which means the Saudis will pay far higher prices than the Pentagon for the same equipment, even though these sales are part of the Foreign Military Sales process.

The US Army, for example, is paying an average of $15.5 million for its Block III Apaches, according to the Pentagon’s latest Selected Acquisition Report, and $18.9 million for its upgraded UH-60Ms, while for example the Saudi Royal Guard will pay $2.23 billion for the 10 Block III Apaches it plans to buy, although this figure includes a large package of weapons, ammunition, support equipment and support personnel on top of the helicopters themselves. The Saudi Land Forces, with a different support package, will pay $3.3 billion for 24 Apaches.

The planned Saudi arms package also signals the first sale of Boeing’s AH-6i Little Bird light attack helicopter -- an updated Hughes OH-6 Cayuse of Vietnam War fame – and the first known export sale 2.75 inch/70mm laser guided rockets, of which 6,000 are to be procured for the Royal Guard and the Land Forces but not, intriguingly, for the National Guard.

One final curiosity is the inclusion in the package for the National Guard of 12 MD-530F light helicopters, for which a rational explanation does not readily spring to mind but which will be very welcome news for MD Helicopters.


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