Warplanes: The White Army Takes Flight

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March 14, 2017: Saudi Arabia has completed equipping its National Guard troops with their own air force. This consists of 48 helicopters, half of them UH-60M transports and the rest gunships. Twelve of these gunships are AH-64s but the other 12 are AH-6Is, a somewhat novel gunship version of the OH-6 scout helicopter. The AH-6I has night sensors and laser designator, and most of the other electronics that equip the latest version of the AH-64. This particular helicopter model has an interesting history.

U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) has long used the MH-6 (and the AH-6) version of the 1960s era OH-6. Developed in the early 1980s, the AH-6, or "Little Bird" is a 1.4 ton helicopter with a crew of two, top speed of 280 kilometers an hour and sorties is 3-3.5 hours long. It can be armed with two 7.62mm or 12.7mm machine-gun pods, or two 70mm rocket pods (seven or 12 rockets each) or four Hellfire missiles. Without weapons, the MH-6 can carry six troops (usually Special Forces operators) externally. The new AH-6I can also carry a day/night targeting system, including a laser designator. The AH-6I also carries four Hellfire, or a dozen or more of the 70mm guided rockets (which weigh a quarter of what the Hellfire does.)

The new AH-6I enables nations to have helicopter gunship capability at a cost of only about six million dollars per aircraft. That's about a tenth of what an AH-64D would cost, and a third of what a Russian gunship goes for. The Saudis apparently want them because the National Guard spends a lot of time guarding important locations and the AH-6I is easier and cheaper (than the AH-64) to keep in the air for long periods and has enough firepower to deal with Islamic terrorists or other irregulars the National Guard was designed to guard against..

The Saudi National Guard occupies a special place in Saudi Arabia and is the main reason the king does not have to worry much about a rebellion in the army, This is because Saudi Arabia has two armies and a system of foreign technicians, trainers, and advisors who are largely immune to any revolutionary thoughts. One army (the National Guard) exists mainly to protect the royal family, the others (the usual three services) are there to protect Saudi Arabia.

Overall, the Saudi military has about 240,000 troops. But about 40 percent of those belong to the National Guard. These are organized into eight brigades (three mechanized and five infantry, for a total of 32 battalions). There are also another 24 battalions of National Guard reservists. About 75 percent of the National Guard troops spend most of their time guarding oil facilities and other important government assets. The rest provide security for the royal family and key government officials. The most loyal, and able, members of the royal family hold senior commands in the National Guard. This is an organization that puts a lot of emphasis on loyalty.

The National Guard is well armed and trained, all of them. But most of all, they are loyal to the royal family. But being that the country is called Saudi Arabia, after the ruling Saud family, the National Guard also protects the government. Since the Sauds see themselves, first and foremost, as the protectors of the most holy places in Islam (Mecca and Medina), the National Guard also serves God. So the National Guard is far more than tribal warriors loyal to a wealthy and generous family. The National Guardsmen are holy warriors, who serve the protectors of the Islamic holy places. That's a big deal in Arabia and the Islamic world. While the National Guard recruits first for loyalty, next comes bravery and willingness to die for the cause (the royal family and Islam). Then comes military aptitude. This often bothers the foreign trainers brought in to show the guardsmen how to use new equipment or carry out new tactics. But foreigners who have been in the kingdom for a while come to understand the need for loyalty above all.

Foreign trainers also note that many of their students are not well educated but nearly all are eager to learn new ways to fight. The National Guard gets the best equipment and gets it quickly. The National Guard is not armed to fight foreign enemies but internal ones. It has no tanks or jet fighters. It has lots of wheeled armored vehicles, some artillery plus helicopters, and light recon aircraft. The National Guard is equipped to get where they are needed quickly and suppress any unrest before it can grow.

The communications of the National Guard connects directly to the royal family and is set up to coordinate with the regular army. There is a paid tribal militia of 25,000 warriors, who are armed and equipped by the king. This is considered a National Guard reserve. These militiamen are organized into 24 battalions and are basically light infantry.

Nearly all the National Guardsmen troops are Bedouins, usually from tribes that have been historical allies of the al Saud family. The king considers the Guardsmen his boys and takes good care of them. If a Saudi needs a favor from the king, he's much more likely to get it if he is, or was, a National Guardsman.

About a third of the National Guardsmen are especially selected from the most loyal (to the royal family) tribes. This is the "White Army" (for the traditional white robes of the Bedouins). The most loyal force is the 2,000 man Royal Guard Regiment. These, as the name implies, are responsible for the day-to-day security of the king and his immediate family. When Saudi Arabia was put together in the 1930s many tribes were encouraged to join the new kingdom by force, or lots of verbal coercion. These groups continue to hold a grudge (a venerable Middle Eastern custom), and the most hostile of these are not recruited for the National Guard.

The National Guard has been called out several times and has always managed to get the job done. In 1979, it was the National Guard who took down the Islamic radicals who had invaded the Grand Mosque in Mecca. In 1990, it was the National Guard that went in and chased Iraqi troops out of a Saudi border town. During the battle with al Qaeda from 2003-6, it was the National Guard that was called out when large numbers of troops were needed (usually to blockade an area terrorists were believed to be in). The loyalty of the National Guard was one reason al Qaeda was never able to make a successful attack on an oil facility. Al Qaeda often relies on bribes to penetrate heavy security. The National Guardsmen protecting those sites were largely incorruptible. The current unrest in the Middle East has not manifested itself in Saudi Arabia in part because Saudis realize that the National Guard will fight to the death to protect the royal family.

The National Guard has about a thousand wheeled armored vehicles and some artillery. In recent years nearly $9 billion was spent on new wheeled armored vehicles and lots of neat gadgets, like night vision gear and new communications equipment. Bedouins love this stuff and adapt quickly to it. The National Guard commanders noted the experience of American troops in Iraq and have requested, and generally been able to purchase, all the weapons and gear Americans used successfully in Iraq. If the National Guard goes to war it will be against Islamic radicals similar to those encountered in Iraq. The National Guard troops have also noted how Iraqi troops adopted American weapons and techniques and been successfully fighting terrorists.

 


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