World Defense Show 2024 report

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The World Defense Show came back for its second edition in Riyadh last week, showcasing more than 773 exhibitors from 76 countries, and welcoming more than 441 official delegations from 116 countries as well as 106 000 visitors.

During the course of the event, a total of 73 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) agreements were signed, with 17 of them being offset agreements. This proves the show’s success as a central platform for fostering global collaboration and innovation in the defence sector.

The event falls in line with the Saudi government project Vision 2030, which states the objective of having 50% of defence contract being produced locally or having local economic benefits. Facing competition from its Gulf neighbours, the event emphasises Saudi soft power and modernity, with a full day dedicated to conferences about women’s role in the defence sector.

As indicated by Vision 2030, technology sharing and multinational joint ventures have emerged as an effective avenue to enable the scaling up of Saudi defence industries. Case in point is the Saudi-built MALE UCAV, presented by local player Intra Defence Technologies (IDT). The Samoom boasts a wingspan of 24 meters and should offer a mission endurance of 24 hours. Though displayed on IDT’s stand in the Saudi hall, the platform is the result of international cooperation and supply chain:  Brazilian engineering services specialist Akaer worked on the design of Samoom, while the piston engines were provided by Belgian ULPower Aero Engines. IDT also works with German firm Hensoldt in order to develop a gimbal.

Another discreet drone partnership effort was showcased on Saudi defence company SAMI’s stand, this time on the sea. Singaporean company ST Engineering (STE) is supporting SAMI with the development of unmanned surface vehicles (USV). Its AUTONOMAST has been integrated on a small surface platform in order to make it not only unmanned but also autonomous, thanks to an AI-powered automatic guidance software for intelligent navigation and obstacle avoidance. Moreover, the mast integrates various mission controls and payloads for applications such as patrols or SAR, specifically tailored to the customers’ needs. A real-time demonstration of manoeuvres from a shore control station based in the booth was displayed throughout the event. “This is a proof-of-concept”, stressed a representative of STE, but they do hope to secure a domestic contract with the SAMI as a main contractor.

A global show… for a Middle-Eastern audience

As global defence industry players seek to obtain lucrative Saudi deals, the event showcased numerous innovative products. Such is the case with Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri, which invited the The Bulletin for a presentation on its FCX30 light frigate. The military vessel is based on the Doha/Al Zubarah-class built for Qatar, and is now being offered as a standard product to new customers. A representative of Fincantieri stressed that the ship was initially “designed for [the warm waters of] the Arabic Gulf, the Red Sea or the Indo-pacific Ocean”; The Bulletin thus understand that Saudi Arabia is a strong potential customer for the FCX30.

The Italian company is introducing three different configurations: light (patrol, SAR), anti-submarine warfare and full (air interdiction). A new modular mast concept allows most of the subsystems and sensors to be centralized, saving space in the hull and permitting parallel construction. With this modular capability, Fincantieri pledges to deliver the light frigate in 32 months and “reduce the time for the mid-life upgrade”.

“We think that this represents a good expression of Fincantieri capability to act as an international player in term of integration of different systems and products, both in the platform and the combat system”, summed up the Italian shipyard’s executive.

The exhibition also witnessed the impressive growth of non Western defence players, such as South Korea and Turkey. At the main entrance of Hall 3, LIG Nex1’s medium-range surface to air missile, along with its ground platforms, was impossible to miss. Indeed, a $3.2bn deal for 10 batteries of the air defence system for the Saudi armed forces was revealed last week, as South Korea and Saudi Arabia signed a MoU to bolster defence cooperation. The missile will be modified to meet Saudi requirements – hence the new name “SA-MSAM”. Speaking to The Bulletin, a LIG Nex1 representative emphasized that the support of the South Korean government was critical in securing this export order. As Iran-backed militia in the Middle East further destabilize the security environment, South Korea grabs the opportunity to establish itself as a key player in the air defence area: a similar KM-SAM Block II medium-range surface-to-air missile systems was sold to the UAE in January 2022 for $3.5bn.

As alluded above, WDS 2024 showed a growing trend for uncrewed and autonomous systems. For instance, BAE Systems unveiled a new autonomous collaborative platform (ACP) concept. According to the company, the vehicle will feature modular construction and enhanced operational effect. BAE Systems estimates that mission applications include electronic attack, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and attack.

Regarding Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs), Agema UGV by Milanion Group showed its all-terrain mobility, and amphibious features. It is able to operate across multiple domains, including GPS-denied environments. Equipped with AI, it can be remotely or autonomously controlled, said the company.

The Turkish defence industry stood at the forefront at the World Defense Show, with the second highest participation at the fair as more than 60 companies showcased their technologies. As evidence of this proactive marketing campaign, Turkish company HAVELSAN presented uncrewed platforms in the air, land and sea domains ; while signing a MoU with the Ministry of Investment of Saudi Arabia and the General Authority for Military Industries (GAMI).

Surface naval drones reflected an emerging interest in kamikaze concepts, as presented by Turkish companies HAVELSAN and ARES Shipyard. This growing trend echoes the ongoing piracy problem in the Red Sea and conflict with neighbouring Houthis. Furthermore, underwater drones, such as XLUUVs, were presented, with Hanwha OCEAN showcasing its Combat XLUUV for anti-submarine warfare and mine warfare missions, while BAE reintroduced the Herne drone.

Training at the crossroads of Saudi defense vision and commercial opportunities

Taking into account the Saudi objective of gaining industrial capabilities and growing its skilled personnel, several companies have demonstrated ambitious training offers. BAE Systems emphasized its Saudi Development & Training (SDT) initiative, on a dedicated stand in Hall 3. Through this programme, the British company supports the professional and technical training of Saudi students in the aviation and maritime sectors. The initiative includes the construction of training facilities in Saudi Arabia, from lecture to simulator rooms.

Speaking to The Bulletin, a company representative highlighted the middle management and leadership programmes that are now being implemented as well as the creation of “a women’s section, in line with [the Saudi] government’s approach”. The training will enable the local workforce to support BAE Systems’ ongoing programs in the country, but not only that: for instance, SDT is backing the National Maritime Academy of Saudi Arabia, which provides training for civil maritime and port operations.

Spanish shipbuilder Navantia displayed its simulation and training system for surface vessels at the SAMI booth, as part of the SAMI-Navantia joint venture. The consoles and software make it possible to train Saudi sailors on a virtual twin of the Avante 2000 corvette – that the Spanish company delivered to the Royal Saudi Navy. On Navantia Arabia’s stand, the shipyard was presenting an even more immersive version of the simulation system, with virtual reality glasses. An innovative technology that could potentially weigh in negotiation for a potential repeat order…

Written by ADIT – The Bulletin and republished with permission.