The National Defense Strategy cites strengthening of allies and regional partners as a key means of meeting U.S. security objectives. Working with allies is also one of five strategic principles underpinning the defense department’s on-going quadrennial defense review. The value of overseas partners in keeping the peace and sharing burdens would be hard to ignore, even if the United States were not facing record budget deficits and diminished trade competitiveness in a globalized economy. With fewer than 300 warships to police the world and a rapidly aging Air Force, America clearly needs foreign allies it can count on.
But building reliable partnerships is all about reciprocity, and the United States has sent some of its most important allies mixed signals in recent years. A case in point is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which controls the biggest oil reserves in the world and has been a model of stability in the Middle East. Saudi leaders have long recognized the importance of maintaining close ties to America, and yet their loyalty often goes unrewarded in Washington. An opportunity now exists for the Obama Administration to send a clear public signal that it grasps the value of Saudi restraint on oil prices and support for regional security goals.
That opportunity is the Saudi Eastern Fleet Modernization Program, a plan to replace aging naval and aviation assets that the kingdom uses to patrol the Persian Gulf (sometimes called the Arabian Gulf). Five countries including the United States are competing to supply the Royal Saudi Naval Forces with an integrated package of combat and supply ships, communications equipment, helicopters and munitions. The deal could eventually be worth tens of billions of dollars, because whoever wins the competition will support the modernized fleet for decades to come. The American team is offering the Littoral Combat Ship as part of its package, a versatile, high-speed vessel that the U.S. Navy plans to use for everything from air and missile defense to countermine warfare to humanitarian assistance.
There isn’t much doubt that the Saudis need such a ship to guard their eastern flank. Aside from the chronic threat of terrorism and criminality, the kingdom faces a growing danger from the airborne and ballistic missile programs of Iran — which one day soon may include a capacity to deliver nuclear weapons over long distances. Having a networked fleet of warships that can protect Saudi Arabia’s maritime border and airspace is essential to the kingdom’s security, and also to the stability of a global economy that is deeply dependent on Saudi oil production.
For America, the benefits of supplying the equipment in a modernized eastern fleet go far beyond helping a longtime partner. If the Royal Saudi Naval Forces are operating the same systems as the U.S. Navy, then the two forces will be able to cooperate more closely in securing one of the world’s most important sea lanes. They will be able to share tasks such as countering pirates and coping with natural disasters. And there will be a ready conduit for recycling oil dollars back into the U.S. economy, creating thousands of new jobs. For all of these reasons, the U.S. Navy strongly backs the U.S. bid to win the program. It would help to have the White House send a similar signal.