Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Is Saudi Arabia getting ready to purchase French Scorpene-class submarines?

Comparing the military forces of Saudi Arabia and Iran side by side shows one statistic that is glaringly one-sided.  Iran has a naval force of 397, and Saudi Arabia has 55.  Of course, this hasn’t been much of an issue in the past, as Saudi Arabia counted on the US to supply all of the naval power it needed.  With the US trying to pass the torch, however, the Kingdom may find itself a little uncomfortable with the gap between itself and Iran being as large as it currently is.  The most recent Maersk Tigris incident in the Strait of Hormuz is probably throwing fuel on the flames.  Iranian ships intercepted the MV Maersk Tigris, and was directed to proceed deep into Iranian waters.  When the captain refused, the Iranians fired shots across the bridge, leading the captain to change his mind and follow the Iranian demands.  The Maersk Tigris did, however send a distress signal, which was responded to by the guided missile destroyer USS Farragut.  As the Maersk Tigris was flying under the flag of the Marshall Islands, the USS Farragut did not intervene.  As the Marshall Islands are under the military protection of the United States, the USS Farragut could have probably intervened, but in any case did not, and the MV Maersk Tigris is still in Iranian custody.

 Saudi Arabia surely would have noticed, and this event probably led impetus to the announcement today of the Kingdom awarding billions of euros worth of contracts to France.  France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius did state that some of these contracts would be naval projects, but did not specify exactly what they would entail.  For the past couple of years, however, Saudi has expressed significant interest in purchasing submarines.  Iran has a submarine force of 32 ships, something that will worry Saudi Arabia greatly if the US is no longer protecting shipping as vigorously as it once did.  In 2013 talks were underway for the purchase of dozens of the German-made 209 submarines, but the sale never went through.  In early 2014 reports were that the UAE and Saudi Arabia were still intending to purchase submarines, but again the deal apparently never materialized. 

While it displaces more than the 1000 tons the Saudis had expressed interest in before, the 1500 ton French Scorpene-class submarine is one of the most modern submarines in the world, and nothing the Iranians have comes close to it.  Many of Iranian submarines are the smaller pocket sized submarines designed by North Korea.  These ships are still lethal, as the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan can attest to. 

While there has been no mention either way about what the naval projects entail, even a few of the Scorpene-class submarines would be a good fit for the Saudis, and would significantly improve its naval capabilities.  The French would love the deal as well, as in recent years France has made overt gestures trying to establish closer ties to the Arab nations.  The purchase of the Scorpene-class would necessarily entail closer defense ties between the two nations, something both countries would welcome.  

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