The U.S. Defense Department notified Congress it wants to sell to Saudi Arabia up to $60 billion in weapons to help confront threats from Iran and violent extremists.
The proposed sale, which may be the largest to another country in U.S. history if all purchases are made, includes Boeing Co. F-15 fighter jets, attack helicopters and satellite- guided bombs, according to notices sent to Congress today. It also contains helicopters made by United Technologies Corp. and advanced radar from Raytheon Co.
Congress has until Nov. 20 to stop the sale before the Defense Department and companies proceed into more detailed talks with Saudi Arabia on contracts that, if executed, could extend a decade. Congress will review the proposed sale during its scheduled Nov. 15-19 post-election session.
The proposed sale “represents a powerful symbol of the robust strategic relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia,” Colin Kahl, deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, said in an interview. He said he Saudis instead could have bought equipment from Britain, France, Russia or China.
The sale reflects a common view of threats facing Saudi Arabia and the U.S. that undermine stability in the Middle East, the world’s biggest oil-producing region. The Obama administration has failed to persuade Iran to curb its missile and nuclear programs, and militant groups, including those linked to al-Qaeda, continue to operate in the region.
1992 Weapons Sale
Saudi Arabia’s last significant U.S. weapons purchase was for 72 F-15s in 1992, a transaction valued at as much as $9 billion. The final installment of those planes was delivered in November 1999. Saudi Arabia plans to upgrade and replace some of its older aircraft with new purchases, so the overall number of F-15s on the ground probably won’t increase, Kahl said.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil supplier, used F-15s and Apache helicopters in late 2009 to fight Muslim Shiite rebels who crossed the border from Yemen and seized territory inside the kingdom.
Separately, Yemen is battling al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is using its base in the country to carry out attacks on Saudi Arabia and Western targets, such as a failed December 2009 attempt to blow up a Detroit bound U.S. airliner.
Saudi Arabia was among the top three buyers of U.S. defense equipment and services in three periods examined by the Congressional Research Service since fiscal 2001. Deliveries to the kingdom topped the list in 2008, the latest year reported, with a total value of $1.2 billion, ranking just ahead of Israel.
The $60 billion estimated price tag for the new package is “an upper limit” and “what they’re actually likely to spend on this package will probably be somewhat less,” Kahl said.
The deal could be a signal to other Gulf Cooperation Council nations, such as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait, as they decide where to make their own purchases, Kahl said. “That’s going to mean naval upgrades, ballistic missile defense, upgrades to air defenses,” he said.
The Israelis haven’t opposed the sale, Kahl said. They “agree that it is in our interests and in the region’s interests for Saudi Arabia to have a close relationship to us,” he said. “And they also are concerned about the threat emanating from Iran.”
The U.S. has worked to ensure that Israel maintains a “qualitative military edge” over other countries in the region, Kahl said.
Israel isn’t asking Congress for any particular steps in relation to the sale, such as hearings or assurances, because any concerns were discussed with the administration, said Jonathan Peled, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, without detailing any reservations
“We’re not thrilled about it,” Peled said. Still, “we have a good, continuous and close dialogue with the administration and a strong, ongoing commitment to maintain Israel’s military edge.’
Kahl said the Saudi F-15 package also doesn’t include “the types of systems the Israelis would be most concerned about,” such as weapons that can be fired from long distances and could, under certain scenarios, threaten Israel.
The package includes 84 new F-15s and upgrades to 70 more that are already in the Saudi inventory, at a cost of $29.4 billion. Helicopter sales total about $31 billion, including spare parts, training simulators, long-term logistics support and some munitions.
Saudi Arabia would receive 1,000 versions of Chicago-based Boeing’s satellite-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition “smart bomb” system, which the kingdom first bought in 2008. It also would get 400 Harpoon anti-ship missiles and 600 Raytheon HARM anti-radar missiles, which would be new to its arsenal.
The Saudis would like to have the initial squadron of 12 F-15s delivered to a U.S. base for training as soon as the end of 2014, with the first aircraft arriving in Saudi Arabia in 2015, Kahl said. The jets are comparable in capability to F-15s the U.S. has sold to South Korea and Singapore, Kahl said.
The Saudis would buy about 72 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, 70 AH-64D Longbow Apache helicopters and 36 AH-6 Little Bird gunships, Kahl said.
The Longbow is the U.S. Army’s premier anti-tank helicopter, capable of firing laser-guided or all-weather radar- guided air-to-ground Hellfire missiles. The Saudi package includes 640 laser-guided versions. The Longbows are in addition to 12 that Congress in 2008 cleared Boeing to sell to the Saudis.
The aircraft and choppers would be powered by General Electric Co. F-110 and T700 engines.