American military planners are in the throes of an unprecedented modernization and expansion project for the Gulf emirates’ air, missiles and air defense forces, DEBKA-Net–Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report.
Its linchpins are the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and sultanate of Oman. At the end of the project, the Saudi air force will be the biggest in the Middle East, nearly the size of Israel’s, and equipped with the last word in avionics, electronic warfare systems and missiles.
The function assigned Saudi air fighters in the integrated US defense program is to take on the Iranian air force in an emergency, and prevent its antiquated, low-performance air force from providing support for Iranian naval forces and Iranian marines and saboteurs should they attempt to seize territory in the Arab emirates.
Iran is known to command 600 bomber-fighters in operating condition.
They include outdated F-4E Phantom II, F5-E and F-14A Tomcats, French Mirage F-1EQ/BQ, Russian MIG-29, Mig-27, MIG-31 and Sukhoi Su-20, 22 and 25. Iran has produced two homemade models: Saeqeh-80 Owj and Azarakhsh. Iran’s most advanced fighting craft will be the Sukhoi Su-27 when it enters service in late 2008.
The Saudi air force, with 350 warplanes organized in 17 squadrons, is much smaller than Iran’s and not much more advanced. Its backbone of 134 Tornado aircraft includes 48 Tornado IDS. Seventy-two F-15S were added in the second half of the 1990s, joining 41 F-15C/D aircraft which served the Saudi Air Fore from the early 1990s.
Washington plans to double the Saudi combat air fleet, by selling the kingdom front-line fighters, including F-16 C and D and F-15 E – or even possibly the F-22 Raptor stealth plane, to which Israel is strongly opposed, although most Saudi Arabian operational aircraft are piloted by Western aviators, some American.
Camp Justice on Oman’s Masirah island
DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports from Washington that the Bush administration is determined to get the new aircraft consignment across to Saudi Arabia within the coming weeks. It is therefore short-cutting the usual bureaucratic procedures in Washington and Riyadh, which would have held them up for one or two years.
To this end, while Secretary of Defense Gates was talking to Israeli leaders in Jerusalem last week, deputy secretary of state David Satterfield was closeted with King Abdullah in Riyadh for a late night session. Together, they went through the list of defensive hardware on offer to the Saudis and their Gulf neighbors, marking down the king’s comments against each item.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military experts note that this weighty infusion will propel the Saudi Air Force well forward and leave Iranian air strength worsted in any contest.
Another key element in Gates’ Level II for the Persian Gulf is the conversion of Camp Justice, the US air facility on the Omani island of Masirah, into the biggest American air base in the Persian Gulf and Middle East. An Arabian Sea island, 65 km long by 18 km wide, Masirah lies some 40 km off central Oman.
Today, the island has two full-length modern runways, modern housing, roads and satellite television. Oman Air ferries small cars to the island, while Omani Royal Air Force Hercules and US transports supply the base two or three times a week from the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia.
Most of the US reinforcements en route to the region in the coming weeks will be directed to Oman’s Camp Justice and Kuwait.
A western military source in the Gulf also reports that a large increment of Marine forces is to be deployed permanently in Kuwait, which faces the southern Iranian coast.