Saudi Arabia’s manpower problems raise serious doubts about the ambitious force expansion plans that Saudi Arabia has discussed since the Gulf War, and which the Kingdom would need to implement to be able to defend against the Iraqi threat if Iraq should succeed in breaking out of UN sanctions. After the Gulf War, Saudi Arabia and the US carried out a secret Saudi-US Joint Security Review in August 1991 called the Malcor Report which was completed in August 1991. The resulting plan called for a three corps Saudi force of seven divisions by the year 2000. One option called for a nine “division” force of 90,000 men, although 90,000 men would normally only be enough to fully man and support a Western force of three two-brigade divisions.
The Saudi Army was soon forced to adopt more modest goals, but even these goals still called for the Saudi Army to expand to a total of five divisions by the year 2000. The expansion also called for a conversion from a brigade-oriented command structure to a division-oriented structure. It would provide the ability to deploy up to three divisions in the north to defend Saudi Arabia’s Gulf Coast and border with Iraq. Another division was to be deployed near Al-Kharj or the capital, and a fifth division in the south, although some sources indicate that one brigade of this latter division was to be in the south and the other would be at Tabuk.
These Saudi force expansion plans called for the use of a relatively unwieldy division structure, rather than the brigade-oriented command structure that better suited the Kingdom. They required a minimum of 105,000 men to create a force would have had limited combat endurance and sustainability, and they required at least 130,000 men to provide a full mix of sustainability and support forces.
The Saudi Army faced serious problems.
- The only way Saudi Arabia could shift to a true divisional force structure with five divisions was to create two-brigade units instead of the planned three-brigade forces, and leave them without adequate combat support and service support forces. This change, however, threatened to waste manpower and financial resources on administrative staff. A brigade structure remains the most efficient way of organizing Saudi forces as long as they are going to be dispersed widely to the borders of the country.
- The Saudi command structure had not progressed to the point where it could carry out the battle management for integrated combat operations at the divisional level.
- Saudi Arabia would have needed more than nine heavy brigades to provide the combat elements for such a force. A total Saudi force structure of about 10 brigades, plus some lighter independent formations, may be as large a force as Saudi Arabia can properly create and sustain until well beyond the year 2000.
- Saudi Arabia did consider creating two to three additional light divisions and adding a mobilization or reserve component to its support forces.4 Such support forces would have limited manning in peacetime, but would use temporary duty civilians in their support forces in a major crisis. However, the Saudi Army failed to create such forces and lay the groundwork for a rapid build-up in a crisis.
- Saudi forces lacked the independent combat support and service support forces necessary to sustain and support the existing strength of the Saudi Army.
- Finally, much of Saudi maintenance continued to be performed by foreign contractors, and the quality of much of this work was mixed. Over-stretching Saudi military manpower meant further delaying Saudi Army ability to provide an adequate Saudi ordinance corps and Saudi forces that can properly sustain combat equipment away from major bases, in extensive maneuver, or under conditions where combat repair and recovery are needed.
Although Prince Sultan continued to talked about expanding the Army to at least 90,000 men, long after the Gulf War, it became clear by the late 1990s that Saudi Arabia would have serious problems in funding the substantial additional purchases of equipment it would need to equip such a force at a time when funds were becoming increasingly tight. Any such expansion would require additional tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, self-propelled artillery and mobile air defense systems. Funding these items would also present potential conflicts with the priorities of both existing Army units and the different funding priorities of the Saudi the National Guard.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the Saudi Army has kept its brigade-oriented force structure, and its total forces still remain at under three division equivalents. It also is not surprising that this force structure has serious manpower quality, equipment maintenance and upgrade, sustainability, support, and training problems and needs substantially more well-trained actives. Stretching limited manpower, equipment, and support capabilities to create added combat units would serve little purpose. Many US advisors feel that the Saudi Army should focus on improving its existing force structure rather then force expansion, although some elements of the leadership of the Saudi Army would like to add two more light brigades.
One thing is clear: regardless of what the Saudi Army decides, it will not be able to create a force structure that can meet regional threats like Iraq without help from its neighbors and allies like the US and Britain. The Saudi Army will not be able to defend its territory in the upper Gulf from an all-out attack by Iraq, or to concentrate its forces quickly and effectively to aid Kuwait, unless Saudi Arabia has extensive US support. Further, the threat from the northern Gulf is only part of the threat that Saudi Arabia must deal with. It must provide forces sufficient enough to guard against the emergence of an Iranian threat, defend its Western border area and Red Sea coast, while maintaining forces in the south to deal with a continuing low-level border conflict with Yemen.
The Saudi Army Equipment Build-Up and the Need for Improved Standardization and Interoperability
The Saudi Army’s problems in expansion, planning, manpower, organization, and deployment have been compounded by need to absorb the massive equipment build-up that took place before and after the Gulf War.
Saudi Army equipment problems are more than a matter of numbers. The Army also faces the need to operate a complex mix of equipment supplied by many nations, and then be able to operate effectively with the equipment mixes in the forces of regional allies, the USA, and Britain. The diversification of the Saudi Army’s sources of army equipment has reduced its dependence on the United States, but it has also increased its training and support burden, and has raised its operations and maintenance costs. Saudi Arabia has also made some purchases of army equipment from its major oil customers that do not serve the Army’s needs.
Saudi Arabia still operates three types of tanks supplied by the US and France. It has holdings of five different types of major armored fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers, and an inventory of more than 20 subtypes. It has major artillery holdings from five different countries, anti-tank weapons from four, and helicopters from two. This equipment is broadly interoperable, but each additional type increases the Army’s training and sustainability problems.
Saudi Arabia’s unique weather, terrain, and desert warfare conditions also create special demands in terms of support and sustainability. Much of the equipment the Saudi Army has purchased has required modification, or extensive changes to its original technical and logistic support plan, before it could be operated in large numbers. As a result, most new systems present major servicing and support problems, and will continue to do so until new maintenance procedures are adopted and modifications are made to failure-prone components. These problems will increase strikingly the moment the Saudi Army is force to operate away from its bases, conduct sustained maneuvers, and deal with combat damage.
Contractor support is not a substitute for uniformed Saudi combat support and service support capabilities that can deploy and fight in the field, and the Saudi Army’s standardization and interoperability problems are compounded by the need to support equipment in remote and widely dispersed locations. The Saudi Army has tried to reduce such problems by creating an advanced logistic system, but some experts feel this effort has been overly ambitious and has lacked proper Saudi and US advisory management.