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Royal Saudi Land Forces

The Saudi Arabian Armed Forces (SAAF) divides its manpower between two main entities, the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) and the Royal Saudi Land Forces [RSLF]. The Saudi ground forces face the daunting task of defending a country that approximates the size of the United States east of the Mississippi and that contains several tempting targets: vast oil reserves-25 percent of the world’s proven reserves-and the spiritually (and therefore within the Islamic world, politically) important holy cities of Mecca and Medina. This task is made all the more difficult as the Saudis must contend with potential threats from the East, the Northeast, and the South. In the East, the Saudis face a revolutionary regime in Iran which has long expressed its enmity for the Saudi royal family. Historically, Saudi Arabia has had to meet threats from all quadrants, including hostile regimes in the Tigris­Euphrates Valley.

It would be exceedingly difficult for Saudi Arabia to attack Israel, even if it were so inclined. Not only are Saudi armored forces dispersed throughout the kingdom, they are not postured, equipped, or trained to deploy rapidly across country and, therefore, cannot easily mass to pose a threat to Israel. The mountainous terrain of northwestern Saudí Arabia and the very difñcult mountains of southern Jordan through which the tanks would have to pass (there is no common Israeli-Saudi border) are extremely ill-suited to tank warfare. Given the almost total absence of roads in those areas and the resulting choke points, the Israeli Air Force would have little difficulty dealing with any attempt to attack Israel from that direction.

In 1981 the Army and the Saudis drafted a Saudi Arabian Land Forces Aviation Master Plan which called for the procurement of 123 helicopters over the next seven years. The estimated cost exceeded $6.5 billion. The Security Assistance Division in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Plans expected that this program would be accepted and implemented during the first quarter of calendar year 1982. During 1981 the Saudi Ordnance Corps Program continued to improve the Saudi capability to maintain equipment provided under FMS.

The army's strength of approximately 73,000 in 1992 was greater than the other three services combined, and somewhat in excess of the national guard's active complement. The principal combat units were eight brigades: two armored, five mechanized, and one airborne. There were five artillery battalions. A separate Royal Guard Regiment consisted of three light infantry battalions. According to Norman Friedman's Desert Victory: The War for Kuwait, the Saudi land forces had deployed two armored brigades and two mechanized brigades on the Kuwaiti border in December 1990 prior to Operation Desert Storm. The disposition of the remaining ground units included a mechanized brigade on the western Iraqi border, a mechanized brigade on the Yemeni border, the Royal Guard Regiment in Riyadh, and the airborne brigade in reserve. The location of one mechanized brigade was not given.

Despite the addition of a number of units and increased mobility achieved during the 1970s and 1980s, the army's personnel complement has expanded only moderately since a major buildup was launched in the late 1960s. The army has been chronically understrength, in the case of some units by an estimated 30 to 50 percent. These shortages have been aggravated by a relaxed policy that permitted considerable absenteeism and by a serious problem of retaining experienced technicians and noncommissioned officers (NCOs). The continued existence of a separate national guard also limited the pool of potential army recruits.

Two months after the Persian Gulf War, in April 1991, the government announced that a decision had been taken to expand the ground forces sufficiently to provide a more convincing deterrent against threats to the kingdom's borders. Possibly 90,000 or more troops would be recruited during the 1990s and organized into seven or eight divisions. With the expected organization of a reserve force, the total number that could be called upon in an emergency might reach 200,000. Foreign observers, however, aware of past failures to meet personnel goals, doubted that the limited manpower pool would permit a doubling of the size of the army.

Smaller and less important than the national guard until the 1960s, the army began to modernize after Egyptian incursions onto Saudi territory during the Yemeni civil war (1962-65). Radical Arab nationalism and the emergence of Marxist movements in nearby countries, as well as Israel's crushing defeat of Arab armies in the June 1967 War also spurred efforts to build a credible ground force. The surplus of revenues from oil exports provided the means to spend lavishly on army facilities and advanced equipment. The first Saudi armored brigade, designated the Fourth Armored Brigade, was structured and trained along French lines. It was equipped with 300 AMX-30 main battle tanks and 500 AMX-10P armored infantry fighting vehicles, both French-made.

The other armored brigade, designated Eighth Armored Brigade, was formed under United States guidance soon afterward in the late 1970s. To equip this brigade, Saudi Arabia purchased M-60A3 main battle tanks and M-113 armored personnel carriers (APCs) from the United States. In 1990 Saudi Arabia placed an order for 315 M1A2 Abrams, the most advanced United States tank; delivery was scheduled for 1993. Each brigade consisted of three tank battalions, a mechanized infantry battalion, and a support battalion. The French-equipped armored brigade was stationed at Tabuk in the northwest and the United States-equipped brigade at Khamis Mushayt in the southwest.

The army's four mechanized brigades had been converted from infantry brigades between the late 1970s and the mid-1980s and were equipped with a variety of United States and French armored fighting vehicles. Each brigade consisted of one tank battalion, three mechanized infantry battalions, an artillery battalion, and a support battalion. The infantry brigade consisted of three motorized battalions, an artillery battalion, and a support battalion. The airborne brigade consisted of two paratroop battalions and three special forces companies.

The most visible unit of the army, because of its deployment around Riyadh and wherever the king traveled in the country, was the Royal Guard Regiment. The Royal Guard had been autonomous until it was incorporated into the army in 1964; nevertheless, it remained directly subordinate to the king and maintained its own communications network. The mission of the regiment was protection of the House of Saud. Detachments accompanied the king as well as several other members of the Al Saud at all times. Mainly recruited from the tribes of Najd, guardsmen were selected on the basis of their loyalty to the king and the Al Saud. The regiment's equipment included light weapons and armored vehicles.

The army's strength was normally concentrated at four large military cities, built at great expense in the 1970s and 1980s with the assistance of the United States Army Corps of Engineers. The first of these cities was at Khamis Mushayt in the mountains of the southwest, about 100 kilometers from the Yemeni border. The second was at Tabuk, protecting the northwestern routes leading from Jordan, Israel, and Syria. A third site, Assad Military City, was at Al Kharj, about 100 kilometers southeast of Riyadh, where the national armaments industry was also located.

The largest of the military cities, King Khalid, began functioning in 1985 although construction continued throughout the 1980s. Located near Hafar al Batin close to the border area facing Kuwait and Iraq, King Khalid Military City was sited near the strategic Trans-Arabian Pipeline (Tapline) road connecting Ad Dammam with Jordan. It was a self-contained city of 65,000, both military and civilian, built with a perimeter in the form of a huge octagon within which were a series of concentric smaller octagons. Houses and apartments for 6,500 families were provided, as well as numerous schools and mosques, power plants, shopping arcades, theaters, and clubs. Water was supplied by seventeen deep wells. Adjacent to the main installation were a hospital, race course, maintenance and supply areas, underground command bunkers, and antiaircraft missile sites.

The logistic and other base resources at King Khalid Military City were indispensable to the allied buildup before the sweep into Iraq during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. It was reported that construction would begin in 1992 on a fifth military city in the Empty Quarter, 550 kilometers south of Riyadh. The new base would have a residential area to accommodate 20,000 people and a large air base with hardened aircraft shelters. The existing army base at Ash Sharawrah in the Empty Quarter was remote but important because of its proximity to the Yemeni border.

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Page last modified: 20-02-2017 12:03:37 ZULU