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Biden’s Idea for a Saudi Offensive Arms Halt Is Unfeasible

A solid defense needs a potent deterrent, which requires a credible offense.

On Feb. 26, it was reported that the Biden administration was considering stopping the transfer of offensive arms to Saudi Arabia. 

U.S. deals comprising ballistic missile defense batteries to protect against Iran’s deadly projectiles? No problem, hinted the administration. American fighter jets and precision-guided munitions? No way, because they might kill innocent civilians in Yemen. 

This potential U.S. adjustment comes at the heels of President Joe Biden’s policy to “recalibrate” the relationship with Riyadh, turning it away from Mohamed bin Salman, the controversial crown prince who’s effectively in charge, and toward his ailing and 85-year-old father, King Salman.

How this presumably new U.S. approach to Saudi arms sales squares with Biden’s explicit pledge to help the kingdom “defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity and its people” is very much unclear.  

The United States needs its Arab partners to not only defend against aggression but also deter adversaries. And deterrence – defined in this context as Saudi Arabia’s ability to discourage Iran and its allies from attacking by instilling doubt or fear of the consequences – is more effective when it is supported by credible defensive and offensive military capabilities.

Indeed, the mission of national defense is never neatly divided into offensive and defensive categories. Consider missile defense. On the surface, this domain seems wholly defensive — a way to fend off, say, the Houthi March 7 missile and drone attack, the most serious against the kingdom’s oil facilities since the effective Iranian strike in the fall of 2019. But even if this old U.S. priority in the region were to be achieved (the obstacles include lack of trust among the Gulf Arab nations and insufficient U.S. commitment), it won’t be enough to effectively deal with the threat.

Neither the Saudis nor any other country facing such a problem can rely exclusively on a defensive strategy to protect against ballistic missiles because it is simply unsustainable both financially and operationally. The Saudis have to continue to incorporate a measure of offensive counterair to destroy and/or disrupt the Houthis’ missile capabilities (the weapons themselves, the launch platforms, the supporting command and control networks, and the enabling structures) not only before but after launch.

Here’s another example, this one on the ground. To repel cross-border infiltration and artillery attacks by the Houthis, the Saudi soldiers must be able to locate the enemy using counter-battery radars and engage him using artillery. This exercise entails both defensive and offensive actions. 

It’s true that the Saudis already have ample offensive equipment – be it fighter jets, tanks, or artillery – which if only they could learn how to use and sustain more effectively they would be in a much better position in the war in Yemen.

But to signal to the Saudis that we might no longer equip them with tools they need to better protect themselves against aerial and ground-based threats runs counter to what the president himself has stated. It’s also against our own interests.

If Biden’s position is based on morality and a concern over Saudi human rights violations in Yemen, then his administration should halt all weapons to Saudi Arabia. Period. That would be a more logically defensible and perhaps politically consistent argument.  

But a U.S. ban that’s limited to so-called offensive arms makes no sense strategically speaking. A solid defense needs a potent deterrent which itself requires a credible offense. That’s how we and our NATO allies do it. Why should we expect the Saudis to do it any differently? 

We have a decision to make, and it’s not just about our arms transfers to Riyadh. We either choose to support the Saudis end the war in Yemen—with both diplomatic and indirect military assistance efforts—or we don’t. We can’t do it halfway and pretend we’re helping.