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Posted 21 June 2017 · Add Comment

Saudi Arabia's armed forces are undergoing a major expansion programme, with a heavy emphasis on aviation. New helicopters are being delivered to a bewildering array of service branches – some of which have only recently established their own air arms. Jon Lake reports

The Saudi Arabia Ground Armed Forces consist of the Saudi Arabian Army (also known as the Royal Saudi Land Forces or RSLF), administered by the Ministry of Defence and Aviation, and the Saudi Arabian National Guard (al-Ḥaras al-Waṭanī or SANG), which comes under the administrative control of the Ministry of the National Guard.
The Saudi Arabian National Guard comprises 200,000 personnel, plus 25,000 tribal levies, making it very nearly as big as the 300,000-strong Army, (see separate story on Page 50)
The Saudi Arabian Army includes the Royal Guard, which was incorporated into the Army in 1964, but which retains the unique mission of protecting the House of Saud, and which is in the process of building up its own dedicated air element. This will be equipped with 10 of the 34 new Boeing AH-64E Apache Guardian aircraft now on order for the RSLF, which already operates 12 AH-64D Longbow Apaches upgraded from AH-64A configuration.
The AH-64E Apache Guardian (previously known as the AH-64D Block III until 2012) is the latest version of the Apache, and features more powerful T700-GE-701D engines and an upgraded transmission to accommodate the extra power, new composite rotor blades and an improved landing gear. These confer increased cruise speed, climb rate, and payload capacity.
The aircraft also has improved digital connectivity, with the joint tactical information distribution system, and the capability of controlling unmanned aerial vehicle (UAVs).
The sale of these Apaches was outlined in a 2010 Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) notification to the US Congress that also included 72 UH-60M Black Hawk transport helicopters,
36 AH-6i light attack helicopters, and 12 MD530F helicopters, all for the Saudi Arabian National Guard.
With 36 more AH-64E helicopters ordered for the SANG, deliveries of the 70 Apaches began in early 2014.
There has been no monolithic contract for the requested total of 72 Black Hawks, though there have been a succession of smaller orders for the Royal Saudi Land Forces Aviation Command (nine aircraft) and Saudi Arabian National Guard (16 and then eight helicopters).
The UH-60M is the latest Black Hawk variant and incorporates more powerful and more reliable General Electric T700-GE-701D engines, enhanced wide chord rotor blades, and active vibration control, giving better handling qualities.
The new variant features a fully digital common avionics architecture system (CAAS) ‘glass’ cockpit, as well as monolithic machined parts that provide structural improvements compared to the UH-60A and UH-60L.
A contract for the 12 MD530Fs was placed on July 16 2012, and the type entered service with the SANG in March 2013, operating in the training role, preparing pilots for the AH-64E and the newly acquired AH-6i.
Some 29 Saudi pilots logged more than 3,000 flying hours during the first year of operation.
A support contract was signed between MD Helicopters and the US Department of the Army’s Army Contracting Command at Redstone Arsenal, on November 12 2014.
The MD530F is ideally suited as a trainer for the AH-6i, since both aircraft are derivatives of the same Hughes/MDH/Boeing OH-6/Model 500 family.
The AH-6i is the export version of the AH-6S Phoenix, which was developed for the US Army’s restarted ARH or Armed Aerial Scout programme.
A derivative of the A/MH-6X Mission Enhanced Little Bird (MELB) helicopter used by US special forces, the AH-6S had a cabin stretched by 15 inches (380mm) and an extended nose to house avionics black boxes.
The Armed Aerial Scout programme was abandoned in late 2009 to save money, but the export-optimised AH-6i continued, and the prototype AH-6i made its maiden flight on September 16, 2009.
The AH-6i has a glass cockpit and composite main rotor blades based on AH-64D Block III/AH-64E equipment, and is powered by an uprated Rolls-Royce 250-CE30 engine.
The aircraft has an endurance of 12 hours and carries a maximum payload of 2,400lb, which can include AGM-114 Hellfire semi-active laser-guided missiles, laser-guided or unguided 70mm rocket pods, and M134 7.62mm six-barrelled mini gun and/or .50 calibre GAU-19B machine guns, as well as an under-nose L-3 Wescam MX-15Di electro optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensor turret with laser rangefinder/designator and laser pointer.
Jordan expressed interest in the AH-6i in May 2010 but it was Saudi Arabia that became the launch customer for the aircraft when it requested 36 AH-6i aircraft with related equipment and weapons from the United States via the foreign military sale (FMS) route in October 2010.
This led to an August 2014 $234 million FMS contract for 24 AH6i helicopters for the SANG. Boeing began final assembly of the Saudi Little Birds in December 2015, and the first deliveries followed in July 2016.
Fuselages for the Saudi AH-6i helicopters are being provided by MD Helicopters, after sub-assembly in Monterrey, Mexico. Boeing then kits out the fuselages.
The helicopters undergo acceptance flight-testing by the US Department of Defense’s Defense Contract Management Agency, before being handed over to the Saudi customer. It is understood that a number of Saudi pilots trained in Mesa before deliveries commenced.
Deliveries were expected to conclude in February 2017.
With the lions share of the helicopters listed in the 2010 DSCA notification going to the Saudi Arabia National Guard, the command of the RSLF is now pushing ahead with its own helicopter procurement plans.
It is expected that more attack helicopters will be procured for the RSLF Aviation in order to develop its combat capabilities in the light of experience gained and lessons learned during the war in Yemen.
As well as attack helicopters, the Royal Saudi Land Forces Aviation Command wants to improve its heavy-lift and transport capabilities. In December 2016, the US State Department informed Congress of the administration’s intent to sell 48 CH-47F Chinook Cargo Helicopters
to the RSLF in a deal worth $3.51 billion.
The CH-47F is the latest version of the Chinook and features more powerful 4,868-shaft-horsepower (3,630 kW) Honeywell engines, a Rockwell Collins CAAS cockpit, and BAE Systems’ digital advanced flight control system (DAFCS).
The airframe makes greater use of single-piece ‘monolithic’ construction, which reduces maintenance requirements and vibration.
The Saudi CH-47Fs will be fitted with embedded GPS inertial navigation systems, common missile warning systems (CMWS) and defensive armament, including 7.62mm M240H machine guns and M134D miniguns.
They will also have a full suite of defensive systems and aids, including warning systems, an infrared signature suppression system (IRSS), and a ballistic armour protection system.
The helicopters will also have a fast rope insertion extraction system (FRIES) and an extended-range fuel system (ERPS).
The Saudi order will help Boeing to maintain an active production line and fill the gap that would otherwise have existed between the end of the CH-47F Block I production in 2018 and the start of CH-47F Block II production in 2021.
Airbus Helicopters hopes for orders from Saudi Arabia – possibly for its NH90 tactical helicopter, and for other helicopters in the company’s range.
In March 2013, the German Government announced that it had approved several arms export deals with countries in the Middle East, including the delivery of 23 unspecified Airbus helicopters to Saudi Arabia.
In June 2016, French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, announced that Saudi Arabia was to buy an initial batch of 23 Airbus HC H-145 multirole helicopters worth about €500 million ($535m), following a meeting with Saudi crown prince and defense minister, Prince Muhammad bin Salman. It was suggested that these were to be used for a “wide range of police and civil support missions, but not for military missions”.

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