The Royal Saudi Air Force announced the commission of its first F-15SA fighter planes on January 23. The Air Force acquired 84 newly built F-15SA planes from Boeing in a $29 billion deal. The Saudi Press Agency described the new aircraft as “ushering in a new era in the capabilities and readiness of Saudi Arabia’s air force.”
The F-15SA offers a host of advanced utilities, including a sophisticated missile launch detection system with infrared search and track capabilities. Pilot Major General Mohammed Bin Saleh Al-Otaibi, Commander of the Royal Saudi Air Force, emphasized that the kingdom will use the planes to maintain its security and stability, without naming specific purposes.
The new F-15SA fighter planes add to a series of other Saudi efforts to expand defense capabilities in the last month. The U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced a $525 million dollar sale of Persistent Threat Detection Systems (PTDS), along with other radar technologies, to the kingdom on January 23. PTDS were used extensively by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003 to provide wide reaching surveillance around military bases.
Saudi arms deals are often controversial due to the kingdom’s record on human rights. Last March, a Canadian legal group attempted to prevent a $15 billion sale of light armored vehicles from Canada to the Saudi government. A Canadian law professor, Daniel Turp, led the challenge, primarily arguing that Canada should not make an arms deal with a state that violates human rights.
A Canadian federal court ultimately denied Turp’s bid on January 24. In the 28-page legal decision, Justice Danièle Tremblay-Lamer argued that the Canadian federal government had to balance its interests regarding the sale, writing that “it was entirely appropriate in the circumstances to take into account political and economic factors in addition to the human rights consideration.”
Economic motives have typically been the driving force behind arms sales. The United States in particular has profited greatly from arms exports to Saudi Arabia; a report by the Center for International Policy’s Security Assistance Monitor found that the Obama administration offered $115 billion worth of arms sales in 42 separate deals since 2009, more than any other U.S. presidential administration in history. Saudi Arabia became the world’s largest arms importer in 2014 and was the lead contributor to a 10 percent global arms surge in 2015.
Much of Saudi Arabia’s arms imports are directed towards the kingdom’s military campaign in Yemen. Saudi Arabia leads a coalition of ten Arab states in support of the Yemeni government. The coalition has fought against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels since 2015. Saudi Arabia’s heavy involvement in Yemen partially explains why the kingdom’s total arms imports from 2011 to 2015 were 275 percent higher than its imports from 2006 to 2010, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
The conflict in Yemen has made limited progress and continues to drag on with no clear end in sight. Arms exporters to Saudi Arabia continue trade despite civilian casualties, unlike the United States, which blocked a sale of smart bombs in December. Without greater pushback, Saudi Arabian militarization will likely continue at its rapid trajectory, inviting further concerns from international organizations such as the United Nations, which blacklisted the Saudi-led coalition for committing civilian casualties in Yemen.