Saudi Naval Expansion Programme II: Modernising the Royal Saudi Navy

As part of Saudi Vision 2030, the KSA is embarking on a huge project to modernise the Royal Saudi Navy with vessels capable of combating modern threats

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Adam Muspratt

In 2017, Saudi Arabia was the third highest military spender, increasing expenditure by 9.2 per cent to $69.4 billion — 10 per cent of its GDP. As part of Saudi Vision 2030, the nation is aiming to diversify its economy away from oil revenues. A large part of achieving this is modernising the military and increasing the strength of its domestic industrial base. According to Saudi Vision 2030, the government is aiming to become a top-25 exporter of defence products within a decade.

That is the long-term goal. At the moment, Saudi Arabia is embarking on a huge project to modernise its armed forces with a particular focus on the Royal Saudi Naval Forces (RSNF) – which typically receives less attention in comparison to the Air Force or Army. The programme, called the Saudi Naval Expansion Programme (SNEP II), will cost around $20 bn with a particular focus on modernising the outdated East Naval fleet.

What did Saudi Arabia procure in SNEP: I

This exercise is similar to the Navy’s extensive expansion programme that took place from the 1970s to the late 1990s. The primary objective of SNEP I was to match the growing strength of the Iranian Navy. Prior to the project, the Royal Saudi Navy lacked offensive naval capability as the makeup of its fleet comprised a dozen surface ships and outdated patrol boats.


As-Sadiq class missile boat Oqbah - Source: US Navy

With regional competitors on all sides, Saudi Arabia has a lot to protect but had limited the means to do so. The Saudi Royal Navy worked with the United States to expand and modernise its fleet, and over three decades it acquired an assortment of vessels built in the United States, United Kingdom and France.

According to Saudi Vision 2030, the government is aiming to become a top-25 exporter of defence products within a decade

The U.S. provided four Badr-class corvettes and nine Al Sadiq-class patrol boats, the United Kingdom built three Sandown-class minehunters and France built four Al Madinah-class frigates – making the RSNF the most formidable navy in the Middle East. While the Navy became a modern fleet consisting of foreign-built ships, the acquisition of guided missile patrol boats, missile-corvettes and torpedo boats made the RSNF an effective coastal defence force.

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The Navy further improved its anti-air capability with the addition of three Al Riyadh (La Fayette) class frigates from France in the early 2000s. These 4650-tonne vessels are armed with Aster 15 missiles, four torpedo tubes, a 76mm main gun a helicopter platform, and limited stealth capabilities. These vessels stand as the last major additions to the RSNF, and while they were state of the art a few decades ago, they are now showing their age.

Al Riyadh-class frigate - Source: Wikimedia

As part of SNEP I the Navy separated into two fleets: an Eastern fleet in the Persian Gulf and a Western fleet in the Red Sea. The split has resulted in contrasting capabilities and procurement, with the Western fleet encompassing European vessels, including the relatively modern Al Riyadh frigates acquired from France. Meanwhile, the Eastern fleet is made up of U.S.-built frigates and patrol boats which are entering the end of their lifespan.

What are the key threats to Saudi Arabia?

Political Instability 

There a number of geopolitical tensions that could emerge into flashpoints in the Middle East. The Saudi Arabia-Iran struggle for control in the Middle East appears to be the biggest catalyst for instability in the region. This entails intervention in Yemen and the Saudi-Yemeni border conflict. Iran is reportedly backing the Houthi-rebel faction via arms and training.

RELATED: Global Air Defence Requirements Map 

Other areas of instability include the Syrian civil war and the rising tensions between Israel and Iran. There have been increasing signs of a coalition forming between Israel, KSA and the U.S. to contain Iranian influence.


In January 2017, a terrorist attack on the Al-Madinah frigate resulted in the deaths of two sailors. The attacked was unconventional, utilising a small speedboat loaded with explosives. This suicide attack raises questions of the RSNF’s ability to combat asymmetric threats such as swarm boat attacks. A greater focus on patrol vessels and offshore patrol boats will be necessary to meet the growing threat of asymmetrical and fast-paced attacks.

Vulnerable offshore facilities 

Many Gulf Arab states face the challenge of protecting offshore oil and gas facilities which are intrinsically vulnerable to fast boat attacks. With a slump in oil prices and an increase in terrorist attacks, the need to adequately protect offshore facilities has only increased.

What Saudi Arabia is planning to procure in SNEP: II

The Eastern fleet’s principal rival is the Iranian Navy, which it currently does not sufficiently oppose – with ageing vessels proving to be a major weakness. In addition, the Iranian Navy also possesses an established submarine branch – comprising of both Russian and Iranian built vessels. The ability to conduct anti-submarine warfare is another area in which the Eastern fleet is lacking.

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Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was promoted to the position of Commander of the Royal Saudi Navy in 2017 with the intent to propel green water capabilities, secure regional assets and deter modern threats.

Avante 2200 corvettes x 5

In July 2018, state-owned Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI) signed a contract with Spanish shipbuilding company Navantia to build five Avante 2200 corvettes for the RSNF.


The deal is worth approximately $2.5 bn, is set to start in 2018 and completed by 2022, generating over 6,000 jobs over the five years. Navantia will be responsible for Life Cycle Support of the corvettes for the first five years of their lifespan. In addition, the contract also has arrangements for Saudi naval personnel to receive training from their Spanish counterparts.

Avante 2200: Source: Wikimedia

This deal pertains to one aspect of a long-term partnership. In addition to the Avante 2200 corvettes, the contract includes setting out a plan for the creation of a naval construction centre in Saudi Arabia. According to SAMI the agreement would “localize more than 60 per cent of ships combat systems works,” including installation and integration in the Saudi market.

The Eastern fleet’s principal rival is the Iranian Navy, which it currently does not sufficiently oppose – with ageing vessels proving to be a major weakness

The Avante 2200 will be an export variant and adapted to meet the requirements of the Navy. In terms of specifications, the Avante 22 displaces 2,500 tonnes, measures 98 metres in length, and can reach up to 25 knots. In addition to its 92 crew, the Avante 2200 can accommodate a 10-ton class helicopter giving it excellent rapid response capabilities.

While the specifications are subject to change, the Avante 2200 will be more heavily armed than the Venezuelan export variant the world’s only other operator of the vessel. Its armament will likely consist of:

  • 2x4 Boeing Harpoon Block II anti-ship missiles
  • 16 Raytheon ESSM surface to air missiles
  • 1x 76 mm Leonardo Super Rapid main gun system
  • 1x 35mm Rheinmetall Oerlikon Millennium CIWS
  • 2x torpedo launchers

Overall, the Avante 2200 will provide the Eastern fleet with a mobile and advanced naval asset with stealth capabilities, which the fleet is currently lacking. It will be expected to perform a variety of missions, including surveillance, protection offshore facilities, electronic warfare, and protection against terrorism and drug trafficking.

Multi-Mission Surface Combatant x 4

The RSNF is acquiring four Multi-Mission Surface Combatant Ships (MMSC), which is based upon the Freedom-Class Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) that Lockheed Martin is building for the United States Navy. The MMSC is a relatively small vessel designed for near shore missions.

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The U.S. Government awarded Lockheed Martin a $450 million contract to begin planning and construction of four MMSCs. This deal is part of a larger deal between Saudi Arabia and the U.S.The Royal Saudi Navy variant will be armed with:

  • 1x BAE Systems Bofors 57mm main gun
  • 8x Harpoon anti-ship missiles
  • 1x Raytheon Sea RAM launcher
  • 2x Nexter Narwhal 20mm remote weapon stations
  • 32x RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles

The MMSC has a significant advantage over the LCS, which lacks the over-the-horizon anti-ship missiles and the eight-cell Mk 41 vertical-launch system, giving it anti-air capability.

The armament may be different than that equipped on the LCS but it will have a similar array of combat management systems. The MMSC utilises the COMBATTS-21 combat management system built from the Aegis combat system, giving the vessel advanced anti-air and anti-surface capabilities — unique for a small combat vessel.

The MMSC will provide the Navy with a modern vessel that is highly mobile and lethal – capable of confronting modern threats, both conventional and unconventional. It features the manoeuvrability and steel-mono hull of the LCS, but with significant improvements such as an increased range of 5,000 nautical miles and speeds of up to 30 knots, and an integrated Mk41 Vertical Launch System.

Littoral Combat Ship - Source: US Navy

To that end, the MMSC will – as the name suggests – be viable for a wide array of different missions. Harpoons provide anti-ship capability and sonar suites and torpedoes will give the RSNF the potential to detect and neutralize submarine-based threats.

In addition, 4D air search radar along with the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles the navy is planning to buy will give the Navy formidable anti-air capabilities, which the LCS is often accused of lacking.

Sikorsky’s MH-60/MH60R Seahawk x 14

The RSNF has ordered 14 Seahawk helicopters in a deal worth up
to $ 2billion. Ten are set to be delivered in July 2018 with an additional four to be delivered in 2019.

Armed with Lockheed Hellfire missiles, Raytheon torpedoes and guided rockets, the MH-60R also comes equipped with a suite of anti-submarine warfare tools, including advanced radar, deep-water sonar, and forward-looking infrared and electronic protection systems.

The MH-60 will be crucial for the RSNs ability to conduct anti-submarine warfare. The MH-60R can carry up to three ATK mk50 or mk46 active/passive lightweight torpedoes.

Sikorsky SH-60 Seahawk - Source: US Navy

The purchase of these helicopters is to come with 1,000 AN/SSQ-36/53/62 Sonobuoys; 38 AGM-114R Hellfire II missiles; five AGM-114 M36-E9 Captive Air Training Missiles; four AGM-114Q Hellfire Training Missiles; 380 Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System rockets; 12 M-240D crew-served weapons and 12 GAU-21 crew-served weapons.

C4I command and control and intelligence sharing network

$18 bn has been allocated for long-planned
 command and control and intelligence sharing network. This project entails updates to facilities, hardware, software used by the armed forces, including naval forces afloat and ashore in order to enhance their combat effectiveness.

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In 2018, defence technology and Cybersecurity Company, Raytheon and the SAMI signed a memorandum of understanding to cooperate on defence-related projects and technology development, broadening the scope of Saudi Arabia’s electronic warfare and mission systems integration capability.

UAVs x 40-50

A major aspect of the modernisation of the Saudi Armed Forces is increased usage of UAVs. In 2017, the nation unveiled a strategic drone programme called Saqr 1. Saqr 1 is equipped with a KA-satellite for communication and has a payload consisting of missiles and laser-guided bombs.

There have been increasing signs of a coalition forming between Israel, Iran and the U.S. to contain Iranian influence

Separate from the Saqr 1programme, 2017 saw China agree to construct a UAV facility in Saudi Arabia in a $65 billion deal. China Aerospace Science and Technology will lead the project, expecting to produce CH-4 UAVs, which rivals the United States’ MQ-1 Predator. The U.S. is reluctant to sell its UAV to nations outside of Europe leaving a gap in the market.

The MQ-1 Predator, the main rival of the CH-4 - Source: Shutterstock

An estimate of 40-50 UAVs are forming part of the SNEP II will be a mixture of shore and ship-launched systems, fulfilling a mixture of short and long-range reconnaissance missions. A key characteristic of the drones will be their ability to be launched and retrieved from the aft landing deck of the OPVs.

Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft x 6

In 2015 Saudi Arabia began talks with Boeing to procure 8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft at an estimated cost of $1.3 bn. While the contract has been in talks since 2015, it was formally announced in 2017.

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The P-8A Poseidon is a maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft optimised for hunting submarines from high altitudes. These aircraft will be expected to fulfil a variety of roles, including ELINT, anti-submarine warfare and anti-surface warfare.

Commercial engagement with other nations


In April 2018, Saudi Arabia and France signed up to 20 major defence deals worth $18 bn. The deal pertains to all sectors of the Saudi Armed Forces, with a deal for naval patrol boats from shipbuilder CMN being highly likely.


For a number of years, Germany has been contracted to deliver up to 146 patrol boats. German shipbuilder Lurssen signed the $1 bn contract in 2014 and has currently delivered 12 as part of SNEP II, with more scheduled to arrive in the coming years.

The patrol boats come in four variants, comprising 40mm and 60mm patrol boats, both the TNC 35 and FPB 38. The latest to arrive was two TNC 35s in November 2017. However, recent diplomatic disagreements with Germany have left the certainty of the contracts in question.

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