While the F-15SA and other advanced derivatives of the U.S. Air Force’s F-15E Strike Eagle are known for their ability to carry a wide range of ordnance, precision-guided and otherwise, the aircraft are not often seen carrying Harpoon anti-ship missiles. In fact, other than South Korea, Saudi Arabia is the only operator known to have integrated Harpoon on its Eagles. However, Qatar is also buying the ship-killing missiles for its fleet of F-15QA jets, aircraft you can read about in more detail here.
Plans to integrate the Harpoon on the F-15SA were revealed in 2016, with work carried out by Boeing under a Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) contract. The variant of the missile involved was the AGM-84L Harpoon Block II, the current version of the weapon in production with Boeing. In advance of that contract, the Saudi government requested the purchase of 400 AGM-84Ls as part of a wider weapons buy worth an estimated $6.8 billion. Another more recent order, placed with Boeing by NAVAIR last year, covered another 402 Harpoon Block II missiles for Saudi Arabia, although these may well also include surface-launched versions.
The AGM-84L incorporates a combined GPS/inertial navigation system (INS) guidance package that provides accurate mid-course updates to improve accuracy. This technology had migrated to this missile from the Standoff Land Attack Missile Expanded Response (SLAM-ER) missile, which is itself a land-attack derivative of the Harpoon. Other features of the SLAM-ER found in the AGM-84L include the mission computer and software.
Otherwise, the key features of the AGM-84L are an active radar seeker for terminal guidance and a 500-pound high-explosive warhead, the effects of which have been repeatedly proven in sinking exercises, or SINKEX, of the kind you can see here. The missile has a range of at least 75 miles.
With regional adversaries including Iran, with its extensive maritime activities in the Persian Gulf and, increasingly, further afield, Saudi Arabia’s demand for powerful anti-ship capabilities is clear. Just across the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia faces the threat from both the Iranian Navy and the parallel Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy. While these forces include considerable numbers of smaller fast in-shore attack craft, as well as semi-submersibles and submarines, they also feature missile-armed corvettes and even an expeditionary sea base-type vessel, which could be likely targets for more powerful anti-ship weapons like the Harpoon.
Indeed, while the effort to buy F-15SA jets and upgrade existing F-15S aircraft to the same standard has been a very significant one, more broadly, Saudi Arabia has been investing heavily in its maritime capabilities, in general. These will be boosted to a significant by major U.S. weapons sales agreed under the previous Trump administration, including four Multi-Mission Surface Combatants (MMSC), based on the U.S. Navy’s Freedom subclass of Littoral Combat Ships (LCS). These will also be armed with Harpoon anti-ship missiles, in one of the many notable differences between it and the original Freedom subclass.
In the past, The War Zone has looked at efforts to modernize and expand the previously relatively small Royal Saudi Navy, making it better able not only to counter regional threats, such as Iran and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, who also operate widely at sea, as well as to project power beyond the Middle East.
In the meantime, Saudi Arabia has built up a formidable naval fleet ranging from frigates to small patrol boats and acquired from the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and other countries. Having the ability to launch anti-ship strikes from the air not only provides an additional offensive capability to support these warships’ missions, but also a means to defend them. In the past, Riyadh has also looked at buying P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, which would enhance surveillance capabilities in the wider region and which can also be armed with Harpoon missiles.
By demonstrating its ability to attack naval targets beyond the Persian Gulf, made possible by using tanker support, the RSAF and, by extension, the Saudi Arabian military shows it can match Iran’s effort to project power out of its traditional operating areas. In recent years, for example, Iranian warships have operated in the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean and even ventured as far as South Africa and the Baltic Sea, via the English Channel.
As well as securing its two strategic shipping choke points closer to home, Saudi Arabia’s maritime strategy also increasingly calls for maintaining a robust, persistent presence in the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden, and the Red Sea. For operations in the Arabian Sea, Pakistan is an important ally, as reflected in this week’s Naseem Al Bahr XIII exercise.