The Obama administration trumpets a resolute coalition that includes Arab nations, but the majority of the attacks targeting ISIS militants are coming from American warplanes and destroyers. Just what are the U.S. allies in the region bringing to the fight that President Barack Obama said “isn’t America’s fight alone?”
The five nations — Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Jordan — are considered to be the most capable in the region and have been actively procuring defense equipment, bolstering their capabilities and modernizing their forces. Most have received significant U.S. assistance over the years. One weakness, however, is the potential to field ground troops.
“Their power has been invested in air superiority and air platforms,” Reed Foster, head of the military capabilities desk at IHS Jane's, told NBC News. “That’s the most natural fit for any sort of coalition for these countries.”
While the U.S. might not need the Gulf nations militarily, their participation sends a strong message to the region condemning the actions of ISIS. Still, their military strengths are nothing to scoff at. Here’s a look at what the “coalition of the willing” has to offer.
The Big Boys: Saudia Arabia and the U.A.E.
Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. have aircraft and weaponry that is considered to be close to — if not as good as — the Pentagon's.
“It is more or less considered the top-end kit,” Foster said.
Saudi Arabia is considered to be the King Kong of the Gulf, having invested a fortune in its air force. The kingdom boasts one of the world's fastest-growing defense budgets at the moment, having increased at an average rate of around 18 percent annually over the last three years, according to IHS Jane's. It budgeted $48 billion for defense this year, according to IHS Jane's. That compares to the U.S. defense budget of $581 billion.
“They are buying the latest and greatest of defense equipment,” Foster said, noting that it often purchases similar equipment to the U.S.
While Saudi Arabia has long had extensive defensive capabilities, it has shifted in recent years to bolstering its ability to conduct offensive operations. That makes a role fighting ISIS a natural fit, according to Foster.
“They bring the most combat capability to the table out of any of the partners,” Foster said. “These are the type of operations that Saudi Arabia has been technically preparing for — going outside its borders, conducting strike missions and being able to do that on a high frequency.”
"Their air force knows how to play well with others ... They're no amateurs"
The U.A.E, too, has what is considered to be one of the region's premier air forces and also has been investing heavily in its military capabilities. Foster said that the U.A.E. has matched its ambition to take a leading role in the Gulf region — and become an international player — with the purchase of “significant kit,” such as shiny new F-16s.
Equally important, he said, is that the U.A.E. has hosted and participated in many international military training events and exercises – which means it makes a good coalition partner.
“Their air force knows how to play well with others,” Foster explained. “They’ve been everywhere as far as major air exercises — they know what they’re doing. They’re no amateurs.”
The U.A.E. appeared keen to demonstrate that with regard to recent airstrikes: it was the first to publicly confirm a role.
What about Jordan?
While Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. drive the Cadillacs of the region’s fighter fleets, Jordan’s air force is less modern. Still, the kingdom has a “pretty sizable” capability and can field around 80 combat aircraft, according to Foster. Jordan, too, has invested heavily militarily and its forces are well-trained.
“It’s wise to the game,” Foster said. “They are quite capable.”
Bahrain and Qatar: Small but strategic
Bahrain and Qatar — both very small nations — don’t have the most advanced military arsenals. Their air forces are considered adequate, but mostly geared towards home defense as opposed to the deep-strike capabilities the anti-ISIS coalition aims to undertake.
While Bahrain and Qatar might not have the most sophisticated combat capabilities of the group, they do bring one important contribution to the table: Bases.
“Theirs is more on the moral support side of the spectrum, like logistical support,” Foster said.
Both have housed air bases and facilities for the U.S., such as the high-tech Combined Air and Space Operations Center in Qatar which has been used to direct airstrikes in the past.
Bahrain has a mixed complement of F-16s and F-5 Tiger IIs — “completely adequate” aircraft, according to Foster — while Qatar’s aircraft are slightly older when compared to neighboring Saudi Arabia or U.A.E. Their arsenals are geared more toward air-to-air strikes instead of air-to-ground weaponry.
So how do the combined nations stack up?
Could this so-called coalition supplant, say, NATO? Not so fast.
Even with the hefty sums spent by the Saudis and U.A.E., they don’t come close to the combined spending of a coalition like NATO — or the amount of hardware.
While the partners’ arsenals are formidable, few believe the U.S. will relinquish its lead role in the coalition. Foster said he expects the U.S. to provide the vast majority of actual tonnage dropped over Syria and Iraq — and coordinate the effort.
"The U.S. ... has the military resources to absorb that more easily than any other country in the world,” he said.
While the Gulf partners can and will contribute — as has been shown in the initial airstrikes — they lack the experience in building and coordinating coalitions that the U.S. has honed for decades.
“That’s the role that that the U.S. sees for itself in this conflict, that’s the role that’s expected of it,” Foster said.