Getting over the agony of absorption

12 April 1996

The biggest challenge facing Middle East armed forces is not the purchase of equipment. There are some cash constraints, but the region is still a big buyer by any comparative measure. Its problem is absorbing the equipment now being delivered. To use their new assets, the armed forces of the Gulf states have to devote more resources to training and support and less to the acquisition of shiny new aircraft, tanks, and ships.

Lessons have been learned which underline the value of being better prepared for battle. When Kuwait ordered 32 F-18 Hornet fighter/bombers in 1989, little thought was given to training and support functions. The planes were delivered soon after the liberation in 1991-92, but by last year there was disquiet about the slow pace of pilot training.

Figures from late 1995 suggest that there were only some 14-16 Kuwaiti pilots capable of flying the 32 Hornets that Kuwait has acquired. The Hornet deal included the provision of simulators and training alongside US Navy pilots in America, but the lack of basic training aircraft and jet trainers has delayed induction.

The US commander in the Gulf in 199091, General Norman Schwarzkopf, comments in his memoirs on Saudi Arabia's inability to use equipment effectively and its excessive reliance on foreign contractors.

Riyadh has long been aware of the need for better training and support packages for major weapons purchases and the two AlYamamah deals with the UK have included training provisions. Al-Yamamah included delivery of Tucano PC9 turboprops and Hawk 60 series jet training aircraft, both to support the larger Tornado order and to provide a training platform for the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF).

In 1993, the kingdom ordered 30 more Tucanos and another 30 Hawks. It has also bought Jetstreams to enable Tomado navigators to practice radar and other skills. The provision of training under Al-Yamamah goes even further and the main contractor, British Aerospace (BAe), has about 4,000 staff in Saudi Arabia to support the operation. As English is the language of international command and control, and air movements, BAe has set up language schools to improve skills. A school has been established in Riyadh to train administrative staff for the RSAF and to cover gaps left by the Saudi education system. It is estimated that about 50 per cent of Saudi Arabia's $2,000 million annual expenditure on AlYamamah is now devoted to training, spare parts and support.

The UK has backed the sale to Saudi Arabia of Sandown single role minehunters with training on minehunting techniques. France has also set up special training and support organisations to back purchases of the Mirage by Qatar and the UAE.

But such arrangements are relatively new and the shortage of adequately trained personnel is still a weakness around the Gulf region. In 1990, Oman found itself short of pilots for its Jaguar fighters and extra RAF pilots had to be seconded to crew the aircraft. Oman has about 20 Jaguars, but can provide crews for only two-thirds of the fleet. Oman's Hawk 100/200 aircraft are also heavily dependent upon British crews. Plans to use the Hawk 1 OOs to train additional crews were upset last year when budgets were cut as an economy measure.

There are also concerns in Qatar and the UAE about the rate at which pilots can be trained, and retained. Abu Dhabi has converted its pilots to fly the new Mirage 2000 air defence aircraft, taking them off the Mirage Vs. Plans to retain the older planes have had to be dropped as a result. Abu Dhabi's forthcoming purchase of 30-40 new fighter/strike aircraft will present a similar challenge, as it will not want to take pilots from the Mirage 2000 fleet to operate the new planes. As a result, as much as 20 per cent of the probable programme cost could be devoted to training.

Qatar faces similar problems of training and absorbing new third generation digital aircraft such as the Mirage 2000/5 and is expected to buy new jet trainer aircraft.

The inertia caused by absorption has stymied regional aspirations quickly to acquire better equiped armed forces. There is also a need to change perceptions of doctrine and operations to suit the new equipment. Sales teams have had to become more aware of how existing structures might have to adapt to cope with very complex additions to defence arsenals.

The Saudi Arabian National Guard's purchase of 120 mm turreted mortars forced it to introduce remote mortar fire controllers, and fire co-cordination had to be developed to match Saudi experience.

The introduction of advanced equipment such as the Leclerc tank, or the Desert Warrior MICV, in the UAE and Kuwait respectively, has also made it necessary to adopt new doctrines. Only if the doctrine can be absorbed, along with the new system, can the value of the new investments be realised.


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