Saudi Arabia plans on topping up its stocks of AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles, or AMRAAMs, with a batch of no fewer than 280 examples, worth $650 million, with which to arm its fighter jets. The planned missile spending spree comes as the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) continues its relentless campaign to shoot down drones launched against its territory by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen.
The U.S. State Department yesterday approved the sale of the 280 AMRAAMs to Saudi Arabia, comprising a mixture of AIM-120C-7 and C-8 models, which are among the most modern versions of these weapons available for export. The missiles will be sold to Saudi Arabia via the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) process, providing the sale is approved by the U.S. Congress.
As well as the missiles themselves, the RSAF is set to receive 596 LAU-128 Missile Rail Launchers (MRL), containers, support and support equipment, spare parts, plus other U.S. government and contractor support services.
“The proposed sale will improve Saudi Arabia’s capability to meet current and future threats by increasing its stocks of medium-range missiles for its fighter aircraft fleet for its national defense,” the FMS notice asserts. The same document notes that the missiles will be used to arm the RSAF’s Eurofighter Typhoon, F-15C/D, F-15S, and F-15SA fighter jets, which form the spearhead of its combat fleet.
While the AMRAAM is the radar-guided missile of choice for most fighters of Western design, the fact that Saudi Arabia is now buying them in such a considerable quantity points to the fact the RSAF is expending these weapons in considerable numbers as it battles the Houthi drone threat.
The U.S. State Department effectively confirmed that the AMRAAM deal is related to the Houthi drone threat, stating on Twitter: “We’ve seen an increase in cross-border attacks against Saudi Arabia over the past year. Saudi AIM-120C missiles, deployed from Saudi aircraft, have been instrumental in intercepting these attacks that also U.S. forces at risk and over 70,000 U.S. citizens in the Kingdom at risk.”
A subsequent tweet noted that the proposed sale would serve to “replenish Saudi Arabia’s existing [AMRAAM] inventory in keeping with the President’s commitment to support the territorial defense of Saudi Arabia.”
These tweets seem to have been issued to distance the U.S. government from Saudi-led ‘offensive’ operations against the Houthis, with Washington having announced in February that it would cease to support these, at the same time delisting the Houthis as a designated terrorist group. However, the U.S. is still helping the Kingdom defend itself against Houthi attacks.
Although relatively infrequently reported via official Saudi channels, the RSAF faces an almost daily challenge to detect, intercept, and destroy Houthi suicide drones, which are directed against Saudi targets, as are ballistic and cruise missiles. Normally flying at low levels, the drones are typically tackled by RSAF manned fighters, as well as Patriot surface-to-air missiles. Exactly how an RSAF F-15 deals with a low-flying Houthi drone is made abundantly clear in the following video, which emerged earlier this year, and which we discussed at the time:
Either of these options is a very expensive way of countering what’s essentially a low-cost threat. Based on the latest FMS contract, it’s clear that acquiring AMRAAMs in significant numbers is a very expensive undertaking. While it’s not clear how much Saudi Arabia will pay per missile, the U.S. Air Force can expect to pay around $1 million for a single AIM-120C round and, on top of that, other costs such as aircraft acquisition, maintenance, and training all need to be factored in.
The AMRAAM is not designed to shoot down small targets like the Qasef-1, a long-range suicide drone derived from the Iranian Ababil-2, as well as the improved Qasef-2K, that are widely used by the Houthis. The Qasef drones appear to have first been used in Houthi attacks in 2016. Carrying up to 66 pounds of explosives, they are guided using commercially available satellite navigation.
However, the limited thermal signature of these drones means an infrared-guided missile such as an AIM-9 Sidewinder is considered a less reliable means of scoring a kill compared to a radar-guided weapon like the AIM-120. Speaking to The War Zone, a former U.S. Air Force F-15 pilot who preferred to remain anonymous explained that while an AMRAAM is not the only option in this type of engagement “it may be best, depending on the target size and engine type.”
Another former USAF Eagle driver, also speaking on condition of anonymity, added: “By not putting out enough of an infrared signature, you might not get a tone before going inside the minimum range, rendering the AIM-9 useless. Apparently, the drones have enough of a radar signature to enable a target lock before hitting the AMRAAM’s minimum range, which would explain the Saudi pilots’ choice of missile.”
Another alternative would be to use the onboard cannon that arms each Typhoon and F-15, but this also appears to be a less common occurrence, reflecting the difficulty in engaging a small and relatively slow-moving target, especially at low levels. The same F-15 pilot stated that while drones have on occasion been shot down using AIM-9 missiles, a gun kill “is possible but often [the] most difficult.”
The Houthi drones — Qasef series and others — are frequently launched against Saudi targets just across the country’s southern border with Yemen but the rebels are also able to strike deep within Saudi territory, putting the capital Riyadh at risk, as well as military bases, airports, leadership targets, and critical oil facilities. The Houthis claimed responsibility for the 2019 drone and missile attack on Saudi oil infrastructure, although the U.S. government subsequently blamed Iran directly for that particular operation.
As for the numbers of drones being encountered, the Missile Threat project run by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has not recently updated its Yemen conflict database, but to take just one day from last year — July 12 — by way of example, Saudi air defenses reportedly intercepted six bomb-laden drones and two ballistic missiles directed at targets including Khamis Mushayt Air Base. The same day, a Houthi spokesman claimed that Houthi missiles and drones targeted “military aircraft, pilot accommodation and Patriot systems in Khamis Mushayt, and other military targets at Abha, Jizan and Najran airports,” as well as an oil facility in Jizan.
On March 26 this year, the Houthis claimed they had attacked Saudi energy and military sites using no fewer than 18 armed drones. Their targets apparently included various facilities belonging to Saudi Arabia’s military security forces, as well as oil and other energy industry-related sites.
While the Saudi regime clearly finds itself busy waging an expensive war against a low-tech Houthi drone opposition, the same dynamic is one that’s increasingly becoming a worry for other militaries. There are other options to tackle lower-end drones, including various types of ground-based air defense systems, as well as soft-kill systems, although these latter are typically only effective at shorter ranges. But to provide coverage of a wide area, as is the case for Saudi Arabia, a fast jet offers the best response time, as well as being able to investigate airspace incursions. In the future, a directed-energy weapon might provide fighter aircraft with a more cost-effective option for destroying drones of this type.
For now, however, Saudi Arabia seems to consider the costly AMRAAM as the best way of engaging in the ongoing drone war with the Houthis.
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