Allied Arms Sales Bolster the Kingdom’s Defense; Not without Criticism

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[Afghanistan] – – Between last October and this July, Germany and the United States have reached deals giving the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia a leg up in strategic defense. Two very distinct arms deals will provide the Saudi military with a significant advantage against longtime enemies, especially Iran. However, this cash for firepower agreement has certain groups, like Human Rights Watch, up in, well, arms. With such volatility in the region from the recent Arab Spring coups, the concern is whether the new well-equipped militaries of the Gulf really intend to use these forces for national defense.

The fact remains that human rights can be violated just as easily with a other tactics, be they economic, political or forceful measures. And, given the nature of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt (and the lack of significant demonstrations in other nations like Saudi Arabia) it is still not known whether the Arab Spring was, in fact, politically driven as opposed to more of socio-economic uprisings. Therefore, to conclude that recent arms purchases by many Arab nations are actually moves to strengthen security forces to protect existing regimes is a stretch.

This summer, the Germans sold 200 Leopard 2 tanks for near 1.8 billion euro, according to the Inter-Press Service. The Leopard series of tanks is designed for linear combat, not for oppressing the masses. The tank generally has received bad press on this count ever since the events of Tiananmen Square took place. In reality, it isn’t the fault of the tank. In the armor community, a wise commander would be reluctant to deploy his tanks into urban areas. The canalizing nature of alleyways and inner city roads make for excellent ambush points. Additionally, poor street construction and too much pivot steering may lead to a mechanical fault known in the business as throwing track. This kind of failure makes a tank immobile, and thus it impersonates a pillbox instead of the free-wheeling death machine it was meant to be.

Another problem with crowd control is the ease at which the tank crew can be overrun. If dismounted hostiles can get close enough to the tank, then the highest of tech weapons can do nothing. Storefronts and narrow thoroughfares are well within this danger zone. With people climbing all over, if the hatches aren’t buttoned the crew could be pulled out and replaced. And anyone who wants to doubt that the hatches will be open has never been inside an armored vehicle without air conditioning in summer.

The best way for a tank to control a crowd is to be parked firmly by the exits, with hatches buttoned and crew at home. Any tank can be a roadblock. If used as described above, it does not require a cutting-edge design and aiming abilities. Were nations to buy tanks with the intent of civil oppression, why not buy a tank less suited to the conventional linear fight, with a much lower pricetag? The Leopard 2s are extremely deadly as a hunter/killer of other tanks. Its guidance and tracking systems and 120mm smoothbore cannon are less capable of dispersing crowds than it is to silence an Iranian T-72 at three kilometers.

That is what makes this a good purchase for the Saudis.

The Leopard 2 was developed and has been demonstrated to be most efficient in turning other tanks and vehicles into scrap. On the front line against an aging fleet of Soviet-era technology piloted by poorly trained Iranian crews, the Leopard 2 is a battle winner, not the key to dispersing riots.

The second deal involving the United States is rooted in the air. This bargain is said to include the F-15 Eagle, the AH-64 Apache, and the UH-60 Blackhawk. Starting back to front, the Blackhawk is primarily used for transport and medevac. The UH stands for Utility Helicopter. Seems benign enough, but when outfitted with mini-guns it can become a terrifying contraption, although it is rarely used in that manner. Most of these helicopters in combat today bear the red cross and evacuate wounded soldiers and civilians. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say they have saved more lives than they have taken.

The Apache is a mean beast, but is unsuited to quell civil unrest as the Leopard is. The AH-64 sports a 30mm cannon and can hold a cornucopia of guided and unguided missiles on its stubby little wings. Its sharp teeth alone do not make it suited to kill civilians, however. The amount of cover an inner city area provides makes for targeting from the air difficult. Buildings constantly cross out angles of fire and to set up for a missile run requires a football field worth of approach. In the linear conventional fight, the Apache can be as brutal as the Leopard. It can carry 16 Hellfire missiles; each equals a destroyed Iranian T-72. On the battlefield away from the cities, the optics and cameras can track enemy soldiers mechanized or on foot from many kilometers away. They can scout for the main body, or they can strike to prevent counter-attack. What they would have trouble doing, is trying to manage a crowd among buildings from a thousand feet in the air.

Lastly, any opposition to the F-15 is laughable. This aircraft was designed primarily to be used as in air to air combat. Given the Islamic Iranian Air Force is primarily composed of air superiority fighters from the 1970s, the modern F-15 could make short work of them. Oh, yes, they can carry bombs, but are not designed to do so.  If they wanted to bomb things, they would buy bombers. If they wanted to bomb civilians, they could just as easily do so by dropped grenades out of a Gulfstream, for a fraction of the price.

So yes, the Kingdom is purchasing a bucket load of military hardware, but they didn’t go to the Wal-Mart of war wares. They took their benjamins, still slick with oil, to the Barney’s of the battlefield. To keep the metaphor going, you wouldn’t wear the billion thread-count suit to rob a liqour store, you’d wear the off-brand jeans, witty printed t-shirt, and ski mask you bought off the rollback cart within a hundred feet of eachother.  To quote Anton Chigurh, you pick the one right tool. The tools they bought are far better suited to suppress enemy armies than to oppress innocent civilians.

We must remember that acts of evil are committed by men, not the martial objects they wield.

1LT WM Treadway writes the blog The Texan Who Would Be King and is currently serving with the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.