Saudi Arabia organised its first international aerospace show during 12-14 March 2019.
While the bulk of the near 100 aircraft were civilian there was plenty to catch the eye of the defence world at Al Thumamah Airport, outside of Riyadh were the event was held. Among the all-Saudi military presence, were five Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) fighters – a relatively new F-15SA EAGLE while a TYPHOON, F-15C, F-15S and TORNADO wore special markings celebrating last year’s 88th anniversary of Saudi Arabia and Saudi’s Vision 2030. Other RSAF exhibits were a single HAWK Mk65A from the Saudi HAWKs aerobatic team, which was making its first appearance in the new colour scheme, a CIRRUS SR22T and PILATUS PC-21 training aircraft. The Saudi Army National Guard (SANG) showed off four helicopters, as did the Royal Saudi Land Forces Aviation (RSLFAI) and the Navy not wanting to miss out, contributed with an AS332 SUPER PUMA.
All the fighters were displayed with their weapons laid out in front of them, with the only notable absentee being an AIM-120 AMRAAM because the RSAF does not have a captive training round I was told. The TYPHOON was showing off a MBDA STORM SHADOW, although it is only operational on the TORNADO parked beside it. But that is expected to change “within weeks” an officer told me, which would make sense as the RSAF’s TYPHOON evolution is following that of the RAF TYPHOON. Under Project Centurion, the STORM SHADOW should be officially operational with the TYPHOON on 31 March, following the retirement of the TORNADO GR4. Also seen perched next to it was the short range European IRIS-T missile, which the RAF does not use, preferring the Raytheon AIM-132 ASRAAM for now. Completing the Typhoon display was a Raytheon GBU-12/Mk 82 500lb PAVEWAY 2, two GBU-16/Mk83 1,000lb PAVEWAY 2 and a dual mode 500 lb GPS/INS PAVEWAY IV.
Another interesting batch of weapons, in front of the latest F-15SA STRIKE EAGLE was the newer generation 500lb dual mode guided GBU-49 Enhanced PAVEWAY II, 500lb dual mode GBU-54 JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition), 2,000lb/Mk 84 GBU-50 with semi-active laser (SAL) seeker, 2,000lb/Mk84 GBU-56 Laser JDAM, AGM-65G MAVERICK and AIM-9X SIDEWINDER. The Saudi Government has been purchasing huge numbers of these precision guided munitions (PGMs), to keep up with the war in Yemen. These arsenal of smart bombs are all part of Saudi Arabia’s efforts to ensure there is no collateral damage from bombing missions. In Yemen there have been several cases of bombs missing the target, which claimed a lot of civilian lives. It was clear the RSAF is doing its best to ensure this doesn’t happen as it bids to fight back in the propaganda war. The F-15S STRIKE EAGLE were seen with the older 2,000lb GBU-31 and 500lb GBU-38 JDAMs.
Riyadh-based Alsalam Aerospace is currently working on its first Boeing F-15S to F-15SA upgrades. Last July, the US Government announced the award of a US$59.7M fixed-price contract to the company, owned 40% by Boeing, to convert six F-15S at it Riyadh facilities. Work is expected to be completed by August 2020, with completion of all the upgraded 68 F-15S sometime after 2026. The bulk of the F-15SR (Saudi Retrofit) work covers the manufacturing of the forward fuselage, both wings and new pylons and adaptors on underwing station 1 and 9, being built by Alsalam. Other updates include the installation of the Raytheon APG-63(V)3 electronically scanned array radar and BAE Systems digital electronic warfare suite.
A spokesman told the author; “each F-15S will take around nine months, with multiple aircraft on the conversion line at any one time.” First deliveries to the Royal Saudi Air Force are expected in the fourth quarter of 2019.
Two jets were flown to the St Louis during mid-2014 after participating in a Red Flag exercise at Nellis AFB, Nevada. A team of Alsalam technicians worked with Boeing personnel to complete the validation and verification of the conversion and the aircraft were delivered to the RSAF in late 2016.
Alsalam also carries out the periodic depot maintenance (PDM) of all the RSAF F-15C/D/S EAGLEs and will eventually take on the F-15SA work. In addition to the EAGLE work, Alsalam is a primary service provider to Saudi’s military, and a preferred provider for heavy maintenance and operational maintenance support. The platforms the company focus on is the E-3A, KE-3A tanker and C-130. It started maintenance of the RSAF’s TYPHOON fleet in 2014. The company has also upgraded three VIP HERCULES since 2008, one civilian L-100 and two RSAF C-130s, with new cockpits and elegant new interiors, which include bedrooms and suites, luxurious bathrooms, gold plating and state of the art entertainment and communications systems.
By the end of the year, Alsalam will have become part of the Saudi Arabia Military Industries (SAMI), which has been tasked to embrace the full industrial participation of Saudi’s international programmes. The target is to employ a work force of around 40,000 people in aerospace and defence by 2030. It is all part of Saudi’s Vision 2030 – HRH Mohammed bin Salman’s blue print for a future Saudi, at least 50% of the Kingdom’s military spending is to be localised.
The Crown Prince, effectively the real ruler of Saudi Arabia, is the Minister of Defence and Chairman of the Public Investment Fund (PIF). He wants to boost jobs and revenue as well as preparing for a future with lower oil income. The Crown Prince sees this investment in defence business as a way to increase defence capability in country.
There were several exhibits from other Saudi air arms. The Royal Saudi Land Forces Aviation (RSLFAI) was present with a UH-60L BLACK HAWK, AH-64E APACHE, Schweizer 333 training helicopter and a Bell 406 COMBAT SCOUT. I was told the latter are no longer fulfilling an operational role now the AH-64Es have been delivered. They have provided the RSLFAI with a huge leap in capability, with the Lockheed Martin APACHE ARROWHEAD Modernised Target Acquisition Designation Sight (M-TADS) and Pilot Night Vision Sensors (PNVS) systems. The APACHE’s Joint Tactical Information Distribution System (JTIDS) system allows the data-linking of information being picked up on the gunship’s LONGBOW radar, to be distributed to other APACHEs, without the sensor or shooter actually seeing the target. It means the vulnerable Bell 406CS, based on the OH-58D KIOWA and armed with AGM-114 HELLFIREs does not need to be fielded in harm’s way. The Saudi Army National Guard was also present with four helicopters – a new AH-6i LITTLE BIRD light attack helicopter, MD530F training helicopter, AH-64E APACHE (with LONGBOW radar) and UH-60M BLACK HAWK. Undoubtedly, the highlight was the AH-6i referred to affectionately by the SANG personnel as the ‘LITTLE APACHE’ which has been proving itself in the Yemen. The AH-6i has gained from Boeing’s development of the AH-64E APACHE and the A/MH-6M LITTLE BIRD used by US Special Forces. The weapons mix includes an M-134 minigun, .50 calibre GAU-19B machine gun, M260 seven-shot rocket pods and up to four semi-active laser HELLFIRE missiles. One SANG member told me, “the AH-6i is very agile and can dip down into valleys and ravines. And at a fraction of the cost of the APACHE it’s a great asset.”
Parked next to it was a MD530F sister-ship, which the AH-6i has been developed from. The SANG use the helicopters for training, although the first official training course hasn’t yet started – that is expected to start by the end of the year. Under the far-reaching Vision 2030, the military are also trying to bring more maintenance and training work back to Saudi Arabia. Up until now much of the ab-initio helicopter training has taken place at Fort Rucker, Alabama.
There was some foreign participation, but the likes of Raytheon and BAE Systems who have a large presence in the Kingdom were absent. Fortunately Saudi aerospace companies did appear in large numbers as they prepare to take on more local industrialisation.
The three day event was a real eye-opener for those lucky enough to attend as you seldom get the opportunity to talk to the Saudi military. What’s more the event is now expected to become a biennial event, which one day could rival Dubai Air Show as the premier Middle East air show and exhibition.
Alan Warnes is a journalist specialising in military aviation and has travelled to over 60 countries researching articles and taking action photos for his work. For 12 years, he was the Editor of AirForces Monthly magazine in the UK, before opting to go freelance. He has also written several books, including two on the current Pakistan Air Force in 2008 and 2017, and the most recently on 100 years of Aero Vodochody.