Admirable as Senator De Natale’s persistence was in pressing Defence on the issues of military sales to Saudi Arabia, he pursued the wrong issue. Australia is, and will remain, a trivial player in the global arms market and the Yemeni horror is not really pertinent to the sale the Senator was questioning. Clearly Australia’s reputation could be tarnished indirectly through being associated states perpetrating an unspeakable calamity in Yemen. But they also oppress their own people and this makes the EOS deal an important moral and political issue and not a strategic one.
A few facts to aid comparisons. SIPRI estimates that in 2017 Saudi Arabia’s military spending amounted to $US 69.4 billion or 10 percent of its GDP. That is $US 2017 per capita; higher than any other country. The third highest total spend in the world.
As a consequence, Saudi Arabia is ‘the most well-armed country in the Gulf region in terms of its inventory of modern equipment’. Between 2013-2017 the US (61%), UK (23%) and France (3.6%) accounted for nearly 87 percent of arms exports to Saudi Arabia. The EOS sale will be approximately half-of-one percent of one year of Saudi spend.
In the period 2013–17 ‘Saudi Arabia was the world’s second largest arms importer’. The Saudi arsenal boasts advanced combat aircraft and associated ordnance (US SLAM-ER and UK Storm Shadow cruise missiles), DF-3 ballistic missiles with a 2500km plus range, air-to-air refuellers, and 5 US E-3 and 2 Swedish Erieye AEW&C platforms. It currently operates Patriot PAC-23 air defence systems that soon will be supplemented by US THAAD systems, ‘the most advanced anti-missile system available’. In regional terms Saudi land and naval forces are also formidable.
The prospective sale by EOS of 500 remote weapons systems (RWS) to the Saudi Ministry of Interior and $AU 450 million worth to the UAE is disturbing on a number of levels apart from the obvious one of collaborating with these states that are allies in committing war crimes in the war in Yemen. Assurances from these states certainly cannot be relied on.
However, it does seem unlikely the EOS weapon system will end up in Yemen. It is a collaboration between Electro Optic Systems and the European unmanned warfare systems developer Milrem Robotics. The system in question is categorised as a Tracked Hybrid Modular Infantry System (THeMIS) equipped with the R400S – Mk2-HD (dual) RWS; or a single weapon station capable of operating a variety of weapons including canon, machine gun and automatic grenade launcher.
The system in question is an unmanned ground vehicle mounting 30mm ATK M230 LF cannon and a coaxial 7.62mm general purpose machine gun (GPMG). The manufacturers market it as ‘a remotely operated vehicle that enhances a land force’s firepower; situational awareness due to advanced sensors; increases stand-off distance, and is especially effective against light armoured vehicles’. It can be used as a ‘robotic weaponized unit on its own’.
The Saudi intervention in the conflict in Yemen has primarily been conducted through a persistent air campaign. ‘Saudi ground forces and Special Forces have conducted limited cross-border operations’. Given the nature of the conflict, the deployment of the vehicle mounted RWS would have little tactical value for the Saudis.
The UAE, on the other hand, has a different agenda to the Saudis and has committed ground forces in pursuit of influence with the ‘southern separatists, who seek either greater southern autonomy or the restoration of an independent state in southern Yemen’. The EOS system might prove valuable to the UAE forces in urban situations like controlling Aden. However, the lag between contract signature and incorporation of the capability into the UAE forces hopefully means the conflict will be over before the EOS weapons system is available for deployment. If not, their appearance will be the least of that tragic nation’s concerns.
A number of other questions could usefully have been pursued by Senator De Natale. What domestic use does the Saudi Interior Ministry have for a high-end lethal weapon system like this? The EOS company notes that while it always has a man-in-the-loop, the weapon system can also be ‘equipped with autonomous functions used for area or perimeter patrolling’.
A Defence official told the Estimates Committee that an ‘assessment process is followed for each and every permit and that includes an assessment of the overriding risk that they will be used to commit human rights abuses’. Yet, in Saudi Arabia and UAE this weapon system is to be supplied to two of the most repressive regimes in the world who have been not just accused of war crimes in Yemen but also serious human rights abuses against their own citizens.
Senator De Natale could usefully have highlighted the government’s blatant hypocrisy. The 2017 White paper declaimed that foreign policy ‘must give expression to, and be formed on the basis of, the values of our community’. These shared values include, Australians were told, ‘political, economic and religious freedom, liberal democracy, the rule of law, racial and gender equality and mutual respect’. The values that underpin foreign policy, unless, of course, they get in the way of business.
Even putting aside responsibility for a reprehensible disregard for international law and civilian casualties in Yemen, no robust assessment process could avoid concluding that Saudi Arabia and UAE are egregious and unrepentant human rights abusers.
It is not the use of the EOS weapon systems in Yemen that should be of concern. It is the ethical vacuum that permits government to condone any relations with these authoritarian, illiberal and aggressive countries.
Mike Scrafton is a former senior Defence executive, former CEO of a state statutory body, and former chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.