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Probably not since the Second World War will the world witness the appearance of so many German battle tanks in a desert setting. But instead of the descendants of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, the tanks will be manned by Saudi military personnel.
That’s because Saudi Arabia will soon become the proud owners of up to 200 German Leopard tanks when the recent $2.5 billion deal negotiated with the German government is finalised. The Leopards the Saudis will receive are the latest model (2A7+) in the German arsenal and the best that country’s robust armaments industry can produce.
The German tank purchase is just part of the $60 billion the Saudi Arabian government has spent on an impressive array of weaponry the past couple of years. The United States has also contributed to this Saudi military build up, as the desert kingdom seeks to protect itself from what it perceives as a threat from Iran. Last year, the Saudi military bought 84 US F-15E two-seater warplanes, a special version, at about $100 million per aircraft.
Getting their hands on the German Leopard has always been a long-held, Saudi desire. In past years, the German government had always turned down Saudi requests to purchase the tank, as they could pose a danger to Israel.
“The Saudis have been asking for Leopards for quite a long, long time and the Germans keep saying no,” said Nick Brown, editor in chief of Jane’s International Defense Review, in the New York Times.
For its part, Israel has been noticeable for its silence on the sale. In the past, Israel has protested similar arms deliveries to the Saudis or issued cautionary warnings. The German publication Der Spiegel, which broke the story, said the deal was actually cleared by both Israel and the United States before Germany would proceed. For the United States, the long-desired tank sale could also be serving as means “to placate the Saudis,” who were furious when President Obama withdrew his support for Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, allowing a long-time ally to fall.
The probable reason for the lack of Israeli objections to the Leopard purchase is that Israel has become a silent associate of Saudi Arabia’s against the looming Iranian threat to both countries. In Israel’s view, any weapon that strengthens the Saudi kingdom and does not jeopardise Israeli security, such as 200 modern German tanks, also indirectly adds to its strength in regard to the Iranian danger. Besides, the Saudis have never represented a direct military threat to Israel, having taken only a very limited role in the Arab wars against her.
Besides opening a new market for German arms sales, the Leopard deal also illustrates the major player in the international armaments market Germany has become. For ten years after the Second World War, Germany was not allowed to make any weapons. Now, it is the third largest exporter of arms in the world after the United States and Russia, employing 80,000 workers in its armaments industry.
But the irony of the situation is that as it makes other nations stronger with its high-quality weapons, Germany itself is becoming militarily weaker and less valuable as an American and NATO ally. Last year, Germany announced defense cuts of up to $11.3 billion that would see “massive reductions in personnel.”
The hardest hit will be the German air force. It will lose 54 percent of its 185 Tornado warplanes and see the remaining order for 37 Eurofighters cancelled. The navy will lose eight frigates and ten patrol boats. The number of German sailors had already been reduced to 17,000, and another 6,000 to 11,000 may still be cut. By contrast France, with a smaller population, has “42,000 active personnel and the U.S. Navy 453,000.”
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