Gulf States Navies ModerniseGulf States Navies are heading toward multipurpose, re-equipping, and training suited to extended patrol, EEZ protection, coastal security, and anti-terrorism duties.
Don’t Underestimate GCC CountriesThe Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) approach to establish a ‘GCC naval force’ can be summed up by one of its credos: “Interoperability wins. Create a joint maritime force.” GCC’s preparedness, combat efficiency, and cooperation could make the ‘GCC Navy’ a deterrent force in the region. Naval observers agree that countering the Iranian naval threat requires new longer-range, multipurpose combatants like frigates and corvette-sized ships, longer-range patrol craft, transport ships, and an improved mine countermeasures capacity. A recently published report said that “threats to regional waters over the past year  have extended from the Strait of Hormuz further south to the Bab Al-Mandal gateway in Yemen and north to the Red Sea.” UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed said in The National, a UAE-based electronic news publication, on 19 August 2013 that the international community has made great strides in fighting piracy off the coast of Somalia; but, the UAE believes that maritime piracy, notably in the Gulf of Aden and the western Indian Ocean, remains a serious global concern. “Counter piracy remains a top priority for the Emirate as maritime security is an important factor in the economic growth of the GCC region”, he said.
Some of the GCC member states fought hard in 2014 and 2015 to undertake a continued modernisation of their fleet inventories, including the Sultanate of Oman’s strategic role as the GCC’s gateway to the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean rim hub. Additionally, Oman’s location geographically close to conflict fragmented Yemen poses opportunities for the GCC to achieve a peaceful resolution to Yemen’s ongoing conflict. Yemen’s admission to the GCC could be longer term goal, Arab media reports stated. However, Oman is the only Arab country that declined to participate in the Saudi Arabian-led intervention in Yemen.
Robust GCC Response at SeaThere are several options for the GCC member countries to participate in the envisioned GCC naval force. First, GCC member states could offer much of their patrol ship forces for patrolling international waters from the Persian Gulf to as far away as the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Yemen, in a matter of months. These efforts, presently known as the Arab Navy Task Force, may be able to ensure security of international waters in the region, also including the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. Both the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman were able in recent years to further modernise their patrol ship and corvette forces as a result of several ambitious shipbuilding programmes: the UAE Navy (UAEN) took delivery of three of six ordered “Al Baynunah” class missile corvettes and one “Abu Dhabi” class corvette; the Royal Navy of Oman (RNO) commissioned into service three 99m, 2,700 tons displacement “Al-Shamikh” class (Project KHAREEF) corvettes and ordered four “Al Ofouq” class Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs). One unit of the latter has been accepted and two additional units are in the process of outfitting. Both missile-armed corvettes and helicopter-carrying OPVs can play an important role in counter-piracy operations in the region. The UAE has also funded its major Fast Attack Craft (FAC) project – the 55.8m “Ganthut” class built under the FALAJ 2 programme. The first unit, “Salalah” (P 252) was launched in 2012 by the Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri. Under license, UAE’s Etihad Shipbuilding will assemble four additional units that are expected to replace the fleet’s aging “Ban Yas” class (Fr. Lürssen Werft TNC 45 design) FAC. In sum, three types of surface combatants – missile corvettes, OPVs and FAC – could be deliver extra capabilities to the GCC naval force. Oman’s three Project KHAREEF corvettes are larger and more seaworthy than warships of other Gulf nations as Oman’s southern coastline borders the open waters of the Indian Ocean.
However, much more is required to fill in existing capability gaps: new frigate-sized ships in Saudi Arabia; new and upgraded Mine Countermeasures Vessels (MCMVs) in Saudi Arabia and UAE; unmanned systems – Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs) – in the UAE; multimission-capable naval helicopters in Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Oman; Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) in Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the UAE; Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) systems in UAE. The latter are to defend against the Iranian submarine threat in the region; but, their procurement requires a “fair assessment” of the threat and a “perfect knowledge” of the submarines’ characteristics, capabilities, missions, activities, area of patrols, and weaknesses, according to UAEN sources.
Keeping alert to the Iranian undersea and mine threat, the UAEN awarded a contract to Fr. Lürssen Werft and ATLAS Elektronik GmbH in 2012 for the modernisation of two ex-German Navy “Frankenthal” class MCMVs. Renamed the “Al Murjan” class, the vessels have received installation of the ATLAS Elektronik Integrated Mine Countermeasures System (IMCMS) at Abu Dhabi Ship Building (ADSB).
Although there have been serious delays in surface ship and maritime aviation procurements in Saudi Arabia during 2014 and 2015, the Government in Riyadh is keen to improve its naval capabilities mainly under the auspices of the Saudi Naval Expansion Plan (SNEP II). It calls for the acquisition of new frigates, corvettes, and MCMVs. Additionally, there are plans to develop an own submarine force. Media reports said that Riyadh seems to be interested in procuring diesel-electric submarines of “Western design”, Saudi media reports said, with thyssenkrupp Marine Systems’ Type 209 design having been discussed. In 2013, reports stated that five boats are to be purchased for €12Bn (US$13Bn). Smaller then Iran’s KILO submarine, the Type 209 will be better suited to operations in the Gulf, a task the Royal Saudi Naval Force will need considerable preparation to achieve, however.
There were also unconfirmed reports from Abu Dhabi that also the UAEN may be committed to acquire a submarine capability. However, it is unclear for the moment what type of submarine and weapon outfit is required. Senior UAEN officers publically addressed the issue at the Gulf Naval Commanders Conference held in Abu Dhabi on 6 November 2013.
Good NewsNew corvettes and patrol ships are also on the wish list of Bahrain and Kuwait. Due to its small size, the 1,200 strong Royal Bahrain Navy (RBN) is interested in procuring three new corvettes, one specifically to replace the single “Sabha” class (ex-“Perry” class USS “Jack Williams”) frigate. The new corvettes will also replace two “Al Manama” class corvettes built by Fr. Lürssen Werft for commissioning in 1987 and 1988. This is a “good news story”, according to leaders from across the GCC who met at the GCC Doha Summit in December 2014. These hulls will likely augment the patrol craft fleet until a new programme commences.
There are also good news from Kuwait: ADSB signed an agreement with the Kuwait Ministry of Defence to build and supply landing craft and high-speed protection vessels worth over AED260M (US$70.77M). A total of eight vessels of varying sizes and capabilities will be designed and built by the UAE’s premier shipbuilder to handle the task of protecting Kuwait’s territorial waters and maritime facilities from all threats. Under the contract, the Kuwait Ministry of Defence (MoD) will receive boats with state-of-the-art equipment, technology, and advanced protection capabilities to ensure they are able to carry out required tasks efficiently and accurately. According to the Kuwait MoD, the aim of this contract is to improve the security control of the country’s maritime boundaries. The vessels will have “high-level” requirements, making them “globally competitive” protection vessels, said the MoD. Following the brokered deal with the Eurofighter consortium in September 2015 over 28 TYPHOON fighter aircraft, Kuwait is looking to modernise its Armed Forces amid increased security concerns in the region linked to the rise of the jihadist Islamic State (IS) group and sectarian conflicts. Additionally, the Kuwait MoD signed a contract for the purchase of 24 Airbus-built CARACAL helicopters in November 2015.