From robots to gliding bombs, Saudi Arabia showcases growing domestic defence trade

Domestically made military equipment is growing in complexity, World Defence Show exhibitors tell The National

Milrem Robotics' unmanned ground combat system with the Scorpion remote weapons station. Saudi Arabia's Wahaj, the UAE's Edge and Estonia's Themis worked on the widely exported vehicle. Robert Tollast / The National
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Saudi Arabia is making strides towards its ambitious goal of spending 50 per cent of its military budget on domestic production by 2030, following in the footsteps of other rapidly growing economies that harnessed defence production for growth.

With about $70 billion spent on defence in the kingdom last year, achieving the aim would be a significant boost for Riyadh’s Vision 2030, one goal of which is to reduce dependence on oil revenue by promoting non-oil exports.

Saudi officials who spoke to The National at the World Defence Show in Riyadh said the kingdom's strategy will depend on nurturing local talent, with a strong focus on raising the profile of women in defence.

Even for college now we have new different streams for women, developing their talents and making them ready to work in the military industry
Khawlah Alshmmari, National Company for Mechanical Systems

“Even for college now we have new different streams for women, developing their talents and making them ready to work in the military industry,” Khawlah Alshmmari, vice president of human resources at the National Company for Mechanical Systems, told The National.

NCMS has a large stand at the expo, showcasing everything from the high-tech weaponry – the unmanned armoured vehicle turret the Moreb 30, which can carry 30mm or 40mm canons that rapidly fire explosive shells – to less advanced but essential items including artillery shells currently in a large global demand.

Among other weapons, the company also makes glide bombs – fins and guidance systems that extend the range of conventional bombs. Ms Khawlah says this progress simply would not be possible without a rapidly expanding role for women.

“We’ve seen government programmes in terms of supporting women. For NCMS we have objectives to cover the same key performance indicators for the number of women working in the defence sector. So now we have certain Saudi ladies who are currently studying abroad for specific technologies that we want. It's a dream come true.”

Made in Saudi Arabia

At the stall of Jamla Holding, a Saudi-based company that owns engineering and manufacturing firm Atwad Industrial, Yousef Alsulaim gave a glimpse of the progress in military robots, such as their prototype unmanned “surveillance vehicle, designed, produced and engineered entirely in Saudi Arabia”.

Unmanned ground vehicles, which originated in a very basic form in the Second World War, have come into their own as modern warfare becomes deadlier for infantry with new threats such as swarming explosive drones that have a full view of the battlefield, and the return of vast minefields, as seen in Ukraine.

Sending unmanned vehicles to rescue casualties or resupply troops in these deadly environments will be vital.

“We have a steel company. So we did even the production there. So everything you see here is Saudi. We finished production engineering, and now it's in field testing,” Mr Alsulaim said.

“So we are working on it – this is mainly for surveillance, but the good thing about it is we design it in a way it can be multi-use, which means I can remove the camera and change it to a utility vehicle,” he said.

“The beauty of it is that it's autonomous, which means that you don't have to control it all the time. You can just put your co-ordinates in and it will do whatever mission it's programmed for.”

The vehicle, which has not yet been named, can carry 100kg of supplies and reach speeds of 40km per hour, traversing rough terrain for as long as 12 hours.

In the aerospace sector, Nasser Saleh Al Dossery, project manager at Wahaj, tells The National that his firm, formed seven years ago, makes highly complex, precision machined spare parts for the kingdom’s F-15, Hawk and Tornado fighter jets.

That experience has opened doors for the company. Wahaj is also working on the Themis unmanned ground vehicle in co-operation with the UAE’s Edge defence company and Europe’s Milrem Robotics.

“We are producing the remote control weapon station for Themis and we are integrating the system into the vehicle. We are doing this remotely for the weapons at a range of 10 kilometres,” he said.

Increasing experience in innovative design and manufacturing in Saudi Arabia’s defence localisation strategy could open the door for exports if the experience of other nations is any guide.

South Korea is perhaps the best example of a country that harnessed its defence sector and partnerships with foreign firms to jump-start arms exports now worth between $15 billion and $20 billion a year.

The effort was decades in the making, starting in the 1960s with the Yulgok Plan, which focused on machine guns and rifles.

By the 1980s, Samsung and McDonnell Douglas were co-producing the US F-18 Hornet fighter bomber. Three decades later, South Korea can now showcase its own domestically produced stealth fighter, the KAI KF-21 Boramae.

At the current Saudi defence show, US firm Lockheed Martin signed a deal to localise production of the THAAD, or Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system which can engage targets at altitudes of up to 200km – about 100km into space.

Updated: February 09, 2024, 5:33 AM