While the Saudi kingdom has developed a compact fighting mechanism aided by superior air support, Tehran has gained significant battleground experience in the last few decades, accompanied by long-range ballistic capability.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have been engaged in brutal proxy warfare since 2011, beginning in Syria, followed by Yemen.
While the two sides had seemingly taken the decision that direct conflict is not in their interests, that’s all changed with what Saudi Arabia has alleged was an Iranian drone attack on a Saudi Aramco oil facility which forced nations around the world to resort to petroleum reserves as global supply took a hit.
Further escalation could possibly lead to military provocations by Iran in the region, catalysing a stronger Saudi response.
If war breaks out between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the winner will largely depend on how the war is fought.
Both countries are significantly different in terms of the size and the capabilities of their militaries.
Iran has a much larger military, composed of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Artesh normal military; which feature distinct combined arms branches.
Its conventional military has an estimated 350,000-soldier complement, and is backed up by most of Iran’s advanced warfighting capabilities, including the air and navy branches. The IRGC, on the other hand, features a fighting force of 125,000; but specialises in asymmetric warfare, and mobilising regional partners through the minimal use of embedded commanders as far away as Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen.
The IRGC also makes heavy use of unmanned aerial drones, and strategic missiles. It is distinctly known for its infamous Quds Force special operations division, who carry out the bulk of its foreign operations.
But Iran’s ability to fight a war has suffered due to heavy on-and-off sanctions since the 1980s, preventing it from acquiring foreign military technology and weapons; leaving its military outdated in many respects.
Iran’s defence budget totalled around $12.3 billion in 2016, and is meagre compared to Saudi Arabia’s defence spending which is considered one of the largest in the world at $69.4 billion in 2018. To this end, Iran’s defence technology is a step behind other states.
Its air force operates old platforms such as the F-5 and F-14 Tomcat variants, which have seen domestic development, but the air fleet struggles with extended tempos of operation. Iran’s armoured divisions feature an old mix of pre-1979 US tanks (M60A1) and old Soviet-era tanks (T-72) purchased from Russia after the fall of the USSR.
Because it has been unable to modernise its defence capacities, Iran has instead invested heavily in other fields; specifically, ballistic missiles.
These ballistic missiles, such as the Zulfiqar, with a 700 km range, and the Shahab-3, with a 1,600 km range are credible threats to strategic targets, cities and bases deep into Saudi Arabian territory.
The threat of the missiles is actualised strategically given the large stockpile they maintain of these missiles, allowing for a massed fire approach to any conflict that could seriously degrade an opponent’s ability to bring the battle to them before landing operations begin.
This was most recently seen in June 2017, when Iran fired six Zulfiqar missiles at the Daesh-held city Deir Ezzor, Syria, some 700 kilometres from launch pads in western Iran.
But Iran realises that hard deterrents aren’t enough to win wars. The IRGC has also invested heavily in less expensive platforms that can carry out asymmetrical warfare.
Aside from drone warfare, these include the IRGC Navy’s significant fleet of fast strike crafts, which vary in size and can deploy missiles, 107 mm rockets, or anti-ship cruise missiles. They most recently used to great effect in the Gulf tanker escalations between Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Along with a large stockpile of mines, the boats would serve as an effective buffer in the narrow Strait of Hormuz, which prevents strategic manoeuvring and limits the number of maritime adversaries that can operate effectively without providing a target-rich environment for Iranian coastal batteries and installations.
What about Saudi Arabia?
Saudi Arabia features a smaller but better-armed military. Organisationally, its land, air, naval and strategic missile branches are controlled by one Ministry of Defence. When alongside its National Guard, Royal Guard, and Border Defence Force, Saudi Arabia’s military also boasts nearly 250,000 active personnel.
Saudi Arabia enjoys a better, stronger air force and relatively effective air defence network.
Its air force features several F-15C/D and F-15 Strike fighters, three squadrons of Tornado multirole fighters, and nearly 70 Eurofighter Typhoon fighters. It’s air defence forces are also significantly equipped, relying mainly on US Patriot batteries focused on strategic infrastructure, bases, and cities. Saudi Arabia has also exhibited signs of a growing missile stockpile.
Saudi missile forces are alleged to own dozens of older Chinese DF-3 liquid-fuelled medium-range missiles (4,000 to 4,988 km range), and possibly a number of solid-fuelled DF-21 medium-range missiles (1,689 km range).
Is hardware enough?
While military hardware and state-of-the-art technology can make all the difference, a conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran would be determined by geography and experience, the latter of which is critical to any professional army’s development.
Both countries have seen military action recently but in entirely different settings.
Iran’s military expertise was gained from its near eight-year war with Iraq, where it fought a stronger foe who enjoyed regional support, teaching its armed forces to focus on asymmetric tactics and preserving fighting ability at any cost.
These lessons have been reflected in the IRGC’s engagement with Hezbollah, and various militias in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen; allowing Iran to fine-tune its command methods, integrated operations doctrine and tactics.
Many doubt that Iran’s recent battlefield successes came about due to veteran tactics. Without air strikes by the US in Iraq, and Russia in Syria, Iranian-led militias could not have made significant in-roads against either Syrian rebels or Daesh. Moreover, combat records note a heavy reliance on artillery in their operations, which take mobility and air-support for granted. In a war with Saudi Arabia, the same conditions may not be repeated.
Saudi Arabia has significantly less warfighting experience. In 1991, both Saudi and Kuwaiti armies struggled and failed to liberate the small Saudi town Khafji of an Iraqi tank group, only winning the battle later with the US support.
Prior to the current campaign against Yemen, Saudi 2009 interventions across the border in support of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s war against the Houthi rebels, including Jordanian troops, only operated for a few months and kept a distance with heavy stand-off bombing of the Houthi targets near the border.
While Saudi forces did take and hold ground in the operation, it heavily relied on aerial support, with no risk of retribution, and with a marginal effect on the overall campaign. However, the longer the war in Yemen continues, the more experience Saudi Arabia is set to gain.
In effect, Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen has provided its military with practice, with a significant toll in civilian casualties. More critically, it allowed Saudi Arabia to fine-tune its joint operations practice in air and land missions with the UAE.
Altogether though, the Yemen campaign has had terribly little success. While the Saudi-led coalition initially succeeded in pushing Houthi allied forces out of key targets in the south, it suffered in the north even with significant, unhindered bombing campaigns.
In the meantime, many have questioned Saudi Arabia’s targeting, reconnaissance and intelligence abilities after the grievous civilian deaths in Sanaa, and the northern regions.
Drawing the Line
With their unique abilities and recently gained warfighting experience, neither country has a significant advantage over the other.
Saudi Arabia could maintain air superiority in a conflict with Iran, making it able to strike strategic infrastructure and coastal bases, and possibly penetrate Iran further,
Iran however, would achieve maritime superiority easily, using a combination of fast strike boats, diesel submarines and mine-laying ships that devastate Saudi shipping, naval combat ships, and ports. Iran could also deal a heavy blow to cities and strategic targets within the country.
While Saudi’s use of the US Patriot missile battery would mitigate their effect to an extent, recent events have led many to question their effectiveness. Even in the case of normal effectiveness, they would not be able to shoot down salvos of mass-fired missiles.
Iran could also strike Saudi strategic infrastructure and population centres with ballistic missiles. Although Saudi Arabia’s Patriot missile defence systems would likely reduce the effectiveness of such strikes, it is unlikely that those defences could prevent all strikes from landing, especially were Iran to fire missiles in salvos.
Perhaps most significantly, if a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran were to take place without external factors or involvement, the goal of the war would not be about claiming geography, or changing regimes.
Neither country has the ability to fight across the Arabian Gulf, carry out mass troop landings and airdrops, or even take and hold key land in enemy territory.
Instead, the war would be brutal, and punitive: focused on inflicting the highest possible amount of damage to force the other side to end aggressive activities.
While Saudi Arabia is more capable of carrying out a protracted conflict of this sort due its financial standing and access to foreign military hardware, Iran has consistently exhibited the ability to endure conflict and pressure from forces stronger than Saudi Arabia.
But in reality, open war between Saudi Arabia and Iran wouldn’t just be limited to the two states. Instead, it would likely launch a regional conflagration of conflict and bloodshed. While Iran is limited in terms of allies with the exception of Syria, whose military standing is heavily reduced; it does maintain a broad regional network of allied militias throughout Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.
Campaigns waged by Hezbollah or Iraqi militias in support of Iran would go a long way, but would not be able to project force against Saudi Arabia itself effectively.
On the flip side, Saudi Arabia enjoys deep alliances with Arab countries including Egypt, Jordan, and the UAE, not to mention the US.
Given Saudi Arabia’s strategic energy partnership with the United States, the US would likely support Saudi Arabia military in some form which could well make all the difference between a pyrrhic victory or a stalemate.
In the eventuality of US involvement, Iran could target US assets in the region, at significant risk of drawing the US into a full-on conflict at worse or reducing offensive pressure on Saudi Arabia at best.
Even if Saudi Arabia and Iran are strategically matched, US support would bring a decisive edge to Saudi Arabia, something Iran is keenly aware of, given that Iran could never survive an allied full-spectrum war waged against it.