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Bahrain Is Spending Billions On US Weapons

November 16, 2018

Via Wikimedia Commons.

The tiny oil-rich kingdom off Saudi Arabia’s coast is now on track to spend more than $2 billion for cutting edge US-made weapon systems. As 2018 draws to a close Manama announced three crucial acquisitions approved by Washington, DC, that will enhance its military and even give it limited offensive firepower. These span what appears to be a full squadron of F-16V multirole fighters; a dozen AH-1Z attack helicopters; and a substantial order for ATACMS ground-launched ballistic missiles.

These orders aren’t too out of the ordinary for Bahrain, whose armed forces are mainly equipped with US-made weapons, at a time when gargantuan arms deals are in the works among its GCC neighbors. But they do represent a major leap in capabilities for a Gulf state whose own military buildup is quite modest.

Of course, since negotiations surrounding arms deals can take years there isn’t a definitive schedule yet for when Bahrain’s fighter jets, helicopters, and missiles are delivered. But the most valuable among the three, worth a reported $1.12 billion, covers 16 F-16V multirole fighters and an enormous stockpile of guided munitions worth $45 million. On an almost equal footing is the $911.4 million price tag for a dozen AH-1Z Vipers attack helicopters including an extra pair of engines and precision guided munitions. It’s believed Manama may subcontract specific capabilities for the AH-1Z to non-US companies.

A remarkable acquisition for Manama, however, is 110 ATACMS M57 T2K missiles and their launchers. These are surface-to-surface ballistic missiles launched from a unitary rocket pod carried by either a tracked or wheeled transport. The ATACMS is comparable to the Russian Iskander ballistic missile and is best suited for crippling enemy infrastructure and other sensitive locations. Developed in the last years of the Cold War what made the ATACMS so distressing were its original M39 and M39A1 variants that carried hundreds of bomblets. These spread lethal submunitions over a target and nothing except a layered anti-missile defense could possibly defeat its approach.

Based on the records of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), a Pentagon office that oversees arms sales to US allies, Bahrain placed orders for ATACMS M57’s as early as 2010. But the current one announced in late September, which is worth $300 million, is on a scale suggesting the island kingdom is laying the groundwork for a wartime contingency. Rather than bomblets dispersed in mid-air above a target each M57 missile carries a 500 pound warhead and uses GPS guidance to reach targets as far as 300 kilometers. When it reaches its flight apogee the missile accelerates a supersonic speeds toward the ground and impacts with destructive force.

Ballistic missiles are irresistible acquisitions for the armies of the Middle East. Bahrain’s neighbor to the south Qatar acquired an undisclosed number of Chinese-made ballistic missiles and showed them off at a military parade last year in a not-so-subtle jab at Saudi Arabia. The UAE did buy its own ATACMS’ worth nine figures at the beginning of the decade. Even the Saudis maintains a not-so-secret stockpile of Chinese DF-3A ballistic missiles while Iran boasts having the Middle East’s largest missile arsenal.The Middle East is also the only region in the world where two non-state groups, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis of Yemen, possess genuine short-range ballistic missiles.

Considering how fast rocket artillery and precision munitions are spreading over the Arab world, it isn’t a surprise for a vulnerable state to spend on hardware matching its neighbor’s deadliest weapons. To possess a stockpile of ATACMS’ is telling for Bahrain, whose greatest security risk is civil unrest, which is deterred by a robust domestic security apparatus rather than conventional weapons. The ATACMS’ usefulness in territorial defense is also hard to fathom, unless Manama deems it essential to retaliate against an external enemy by hitting its cities and oil refineries. The range and deployment of the ATACMS–it can’t be used as an anti-ship missile–means these barely reach any targets in Iran’s southern coast. Does this mean they’re meant to scare the GCC countries?

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