Chinese drones and Russian air defense missiles: Why America’s Middle East allies are shopping elsewhere for some of their weapons

by Paul Iddon.

The United State’s Middle East allies are increasingly using other sources to either purchase weapons which Washington won’t sell or equipment with comparable capabilities to what Washington has to offer. This ranges from drones, which the U.S. doesn’t sell, to sophisticated air defense missiles, which the Russians have shown a much greater willingness to deliver. Shopping elsewhere for these weapons is not only an option for these states to acquire weapons Washington is hesitant to offer them, it is also a way for them to diversify their arsenals, making them less dependent on their U.S. ally for their military needs.

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Regarding armed UAVs, the U.K. is the only country the U.S has exported its armed MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones to. Among others, for fear the technology will become proliferated and threaten American interests, Washington doesn’t export these pieces of hardware to other states (Jeremy Page and Paul Sonne, “Unable to Buy U.S. Military Drones, Allies Place Orders With China“, Wall Street Journal”, 17.07.2017).

However, proliferation of these technologies cannot be prevented in the long run. Iran, for example, used technology it acquired from a stealthy American RQ-170 Sentinel drone, which Iranian forces had captured in November 2011 near the city of Kashmar in northeastern Iran, to produce new types of drones for its growing fleet of these unmanned aircraft. Turkey, a U.S. ally, is also making significant headway in building its own weaponized drones after growing fed up of the unreliability of the supply of drone technology from Washington, which had concerns about how Ankara executes its current campaign against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Drones are also showing up in airbases in Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan (Joseph E. Lin, “China’s Weapons of Mass Consumption“, Foreign Policy, 20.03.2015). While these look like Predators they are in fact Chinese copies of that iconic drone, called Wing Loongs, which the Saudis ordered back in 2014, or the CASC Rainbow CH-4, which was exported to Iraq in early 2015. Riyadh and Baghdad clearly were not going to sit idle and wait for the Americans to one day grant them permission to purchase these kind of weapon systems.

As The Wall Street Journal points out this constitutes “a strategic and commercial blow” for the U.S. and is already seeing “American manufacturers and politicians lobby the Trump administration to relax export controls to stop China from expanding market share and undermining U.S. alliances.” After all, having Russia and China as its major competitors in the arms trade basically means that when Washington doesn’t sell a particular weapon to a Middle East country then their competitors can swoop in and seize the deal for themselves.

Russian S-400 long-range air defense missile systems are deployed at Hemeimeem air base in Syria.

Russian S-400 long-range air defense missile systems are deployed at Hemeimeem air base in Syria.

Drones aren’t the only pieces of equipment which Washington’s Middle East allies are shopping for elsewhere. Turkey has long sought to either acquire or develop its own long range air defense missile system. Lack of such a system is a shortcoming it has sought to rectify in recent years, through negotiating a deal to buy FD-2000 missiles (which are basically a copy of the missiles used in the Russian S-300 missile system) from China. American and European companies immediately raised their objections. The deal was ultimately canceled.

Today, the Turks are going ahead with buying the highly sophisticated S-400 missiles system from Russia. This comes after years of being unsatisfied with what the West had to offer in terms of both cost and their refusal to transfer the technology.

Tiny Qatar, a U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf, also expressed interest in purchasing S-400s. The sheikhdom’s Defense Minister Khalid bin Mohammad al-Attiyah even went so far as to saying that: “This is not just the purchase of air defense systems but also technologies. […] We would like to develop this industry and bring this technology to Qatar.”

Qatar is currently under siege from its vastly better-armed Saudi and Emirati neighbours. Delivery of S-400s could seriously threaten neighbouring air forces if they opted to attack Doha. This, coupled with the upcoming delivery of Dassault Rafale jet fighters from France and F-15 Eagles from the U.S. demonstrates that Qatar is interesting in building a highly formidable military from various sources.

Al-Sisi positively glows with happiness as Putin presents him his gift during his visit in Cairo in February 2015: a Kalashnikov.

Al-Sisi positively glows with happiness as Putin presents him his gift during his visit in Cairo in February 2015: a Kalashnikov.

Egypt, which has received billions in U.S. military aid since the early 1980s, has a large military consisting primarily of U.S. hardware, ranging from M1 Abrams tanks and AH-64 Apache gunships to F-16 jets. Since the July 2013 military coup in the country the U.S. has occasionally frozen aid and withheld equipment. Just this August Washington reached a decision to deny $95.7 million in aid to Egypt and withhold another $195 million in response to Cairo’s failure to improve the dire human rights situation in the country.

Given the preponderance of American equipment in its arsenal a total arms embargo against Cairo by Washington could prove catastrophic. Diversification of the sources from which it acquires its arms could well soften such a blow. Cairo has taken some steps in this direction in recent years, buying 24 Dassault Rafale jet fighters from France and reportedly 50 MiG-29 Fulcrums from Russia.

Post-2003 Iraq was long expected to purchase primarily American military hardware. While it has a fleet of American-made M1 Abrams tanks and is taking delivery of F-16 jet fighters it has also shown a big interest in Russian equipment in recent years. The U.S. offer to sell Baghdad AH-64 Apache attack helicopters fell through as Iraq clearly favoured Russian Mi-28 Nighthunters and Mi-35 Hind helicopters. The Russian equipment is cheaper, easier to integrate into the Iraqi military and Moscow doesn’t necessarily care what the Iraqis do with it. Were Baghdad, especially under the leadership of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, to have used American helicopters against Sunni Arabs or the Kurds then Washington could have withheld support and spare parts to the fleet, limiting its abilities or even grounding it. Russia, on the other hand, would more likely have looked the other way.

Iraqi army members advance in an old Soviet-made BMP-1, an amphibious tracked infantry fighting vehicle, in Kirkuk, October 16, 2017.

Iraqi army members advance in an old Soviet-made BMP-1, an amphibious tracked infantry fighting vehicle, in Kirkuk, October 16, 2017.

These examples by no means constitute a recent phenomena. In the 1970s the Shah of Iran was permitted to purchase essentially whatever conventional hardware he wanted for Iran’s military from the U.S. He subsequently bought top-of-the-line F-14 Tomcat air superiority jet fighters from the U.S and hundreds of Chieftain main battle tanks from the UK.

When the Americans showed reluctance to sell sophisticated AWACs surveillance planes (capable of detecting aircraft taking off from hundreds of miles away) the Shah said he could simply seek similar Nimrod intelligence-gathering planes from the UK. (Israel would later oppose Washington in the 1980s when they sold the same planes to Saudi Arabia, fearing they could be used to undercut the its military’s technological superiority over its neighbours.)

The Shah’s army also notably had its fair share of Russian and Soviet-made artillery intermixed with Western models. What he lacked, however, was possession of any ballistic missiles. As Iraq began buying Scud missiles from the Soviet Union the Shah wanted to buy Pershing missiles from the U.S. to deter the emerging missile threat from Baghdad. Given the fact they had the capability to carry nuclear weapons Washington refused.

Consequently, Israel became an alternative source that took steps to help Iran establish its own missile force. Israel’s Defense Minister Ezer Weizman had advised Iranian General Hassan Toufanian that: “A country like yours, with F-14s, with so many F-4s, with the problems surrounding you, [must have] a good missile force.” (Trita Parsi, “Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States“, Yale University Press, 2008, p. 75). The Israelis and Iranians worked together under Project Flower to develop missiles for Iran in the late 1970s, a program which never realized its potential given the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

The Saudis parading their Chinese-made DF-3 ballistic missiles.

The Saudis parading their Chinese-made DF-3 ballistic missiles.

Interestingly today the Saudi military, armed to the teeth with American-made F-15 Eagles and European Eurofighter Typhoons, acquired its handful of ballistic missiles from China. Riyadh has had Chinese-made DF-3A missiles since the late 1980s and displayed them for the first time in a military parade back in April 2014. More recently the CIA reportedly helped Riyadh buy the more accurate Chinese DF-21 missiles. While Washington didn’t oppose these purchases the Saudis nevertheless found it easier to acquire those kind of weapons from Beijing.

There are different reasons why the U.S. is reluctant to deliver certain military technology to certain states, even allies: prevention of proliferation, safeguarding its own interests and enforcing a certain political behavior are only some of them. Because Russia and China are just waiting to close these gaps the U.S., paradoxically, actually loses leverage over its Middle Eastern allies when it refuses to sell them the hardware they want. Let’s see how long it will take until the Trump administration relaxes these restraints in order to stop Russia and China from expanding their market share and, in the process, undermining U.S. alliances.

This entry was posted in Armed Forces, English, International, Paul Iddon, Proliferation, Security Policy, Technology.

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