Tuesday 13 September 2022

Vision 2030: Saudi Arabia Pushes Ahead With Indigenous Armed Drones

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Saudi Arabia has mostly relied on China for the purchase of UCAVs. This has manifested in the acquisition of significant numbers of Wing Loong I, Wing Loong II and CH-4Bs from the mid-to-late 2010s onwards. These supplemented several types of South African, Italian and German-made reconnaissance UAVs already in action over Yemen since start of the Saudi Arabian-led intervention in the country in March 2015. [1] In 2019, Saudi Arabia further expanded its drone arsenal with the acquisition of the Turkish-made Lentatek Karayel-SU UCAV, which is soon to be produced in Saudi Arabia under the designation of Haboob. [2] Saudi Arabia seeks to localise at least 50% of its defence spending by 2030 as part of the country's Vision 2030, providing a stimulus for defence companies to set up indingeous production lines.
Saudi Arabia is currently developing several more UCAVs in cooperation with foreign companies and scientists. The first of these, the Saqr-1, is based on the design of the South African Bateleur MALE UAV by Denel Dynamics. The smaller SkyGuard is a local design that was first presented in 2017. Another design known as the Samoom is a larger twin-engined type with seven hardpoints. Lastly, Saudi Arabia has struck a deal with China to produce the heavy three/twin-engined TB001 UCAV as the Al Eqab-1 and Al Eqab-2. [3] [4] A plan to jointly design and produce UAVs with Ukraine appears to have been cancelled as a result of the Russo-Ukrainian War. [5]
The even larger Chinese-designed Tengden TB001 can be armed with a variety of guided bombs, air-to-ground missiles (AGMs), anti-ship missiles and cruise missiles under its four underwing hardpoints. The Al Eqab-1 features an unconventional three-engined layout while the Al Eqab-2 is a twin-engined derivative of the Al Eqab-1. Though a deal for the design was announced in 2019, development of the TB001 has dragged on to the point where it's currently uncertain whether the Saudi Air Force is still actively pursuing the prospect of producing the type in Saudi Arabia.

The double-tail Al-Eqab-1/2 (TB001).

Amid these developments, reports have been abuzz since 2017 regarding a possible deal between Saudi Arabia and the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) for the establishment of a production line and regional maintenance center in Saudi Arabia that would eventually churn out some 300 CH-4Bs over the next decade (making Saudi Arabia the largest operator of UCAVs in the world, assuming current statistics). [6] Whether such an agreement was ever signed or planned in the first place is unknown, and it does not appear to have come into fruition as of the writing of this article.

Perhaps as a result of the poor availability and service record of Chinese armed drones, Saudi Arabia has already turned to Turkey for the acquisition of UCAVs since at least 2017. Although initially interested in the TAI Anka UCAV by Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI), the Kingdom ultimately struck a deal with Vestel (the military branch of which has since rebranded as Lentatek) for an unknown number of Karayel-SUs in the late 2010s. [7] [2] These were rushed into action over Yemen almost immediately, so far leading to the visually confirmed loss of four of them. [1] The local production of the Karayel-SU platform by Intra is set to commence in mid-2022 after a 1.5 year long delay due to COVID-19. [4] Lentatek will supply critical components, which will then be assembled in Saudi Arabia. [2]

The Karayel-SU 'Haboob' in Saudi Arabia. The type is equipped with four hardpoints for MAM-C/L or other small munitions.

The local production of the Karayel-SU could be the final nail in the coffin for the Saqr-1 project. Under development by U.S.-based UAVOS in cooperation with the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) since at least 2012, the Saqr-1 has undergone a number of revisions, with the latest iteration, the Saqr-1C, unveiled in 2020. None of these versions have entered service, with the smaller Saqr-2 and Saqr-4 versions also not progressing to actual production status. [8] Though boasting an impressive endurance of up to 48 hours, the Saqr-1 is equipped with only two hardpoints for the carriage of munitions (compared to four on the CH-4B and TB2), seriously limiting its usefulness as an armed drone. 

Whether the Samoom that is currently under development by Intra Defense is to take the Saqr-1's place as Saudi Arabia's first mass-produced indigenous UCAV, or will instead also face a protracted development cycle, internal opposition and ultimately cancellation as is common to most Saudi defence projects remains to be seen. [9] With Chinese-made drones suffering from high attrition and possibly even basic maintenance issues, Saudi Arabia's recently announced Saudi interest in the acquisition of the highly popular and proven Bayraktar TB2 and Akinci is not as unlikely as some would have expected. [10] Although they were not designed in Saudi Arabia, cooperation with drone technology and perhaps even the production of Baykar products in Saudi Arabia would provide valuable knowledge that could help elevate the country's nascent UAV industry to a materially effective level.

The Saqr-1 that was developed from the South African Bateleur MALE UAV.

A 1/2 model of the upcoming Samoom. Note the mockups of the Chinese-made Blue Arrow 7 and TL-2 AGMs under the wings.

(Click on the UAV to get a picture of them. The year in brackets refers to the announcement date of the project)  

Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles - In Production

  • Haboob [2018 or 2019] (Intra Defense Technologies)

Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles - In Development

  • Saqr-1C [2020 For Saqr-1C. ∼2012 For Saqr-1 Project] (UAVOS and KACST)
  • SkyGuard [2015] (Prince Sultan Defense Studies and Research Center)
  • Samoom [Unknown] (Intra Defense Technologies)
  • Al-Eqab-1 [2019] (Tengden and KACST)
  • Al-Eqab-2 [2019] (Tengden and KACST)

[1] List Of Coalition UAV Losses During The Yemeni Civil War https://www.oryxspioenkop.com/2021/09/coalition-uav-losses-during-yemeni.html
[5] It is possible that this joint venture had already effectively ended before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
[9] Intra’s Samoom: the future Saudi Armed Forces MALE unmanned air system https://www.edrmagazine.eu/intras-samoom-the-future-saudi-armed-forces-male-unmanned-air-system 
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