The US plans to offer Saudi Arabia US$60 billion in hi-tech fighters and helicopters to help counter the threat posed by Iran, in the largest ever US arms deal, officials said on Monday.
A senior defense official said US President Barack Obama’s administration would formally notify Congress this week or next about the groundbreaking deal, which follows months of talks with the Saudis, who are increasingly anxious about Iran’s missile arsenal.
“If you look at the kingdom, the major threat that they face in the region emanates from Iran,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told reporters. “And this gives them a whole host of defensive capabilities to defend the kingdom and deterrence capabilities.”
US officials see the package as underscoring the strategic alliance between the two countries, despite serious strains over Middle East diplomacy and the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“The [Saudi] king sees this as very symbolic of the relationship we have with him and the kingdom,” the official said.
In its notification to Congress, the administration will authorize the Saudis to buy as many as 84 new F-15 fighters and upgrade 70 more, as well as three types of helicopters — 70 Apaches, 72 Black Hawks and 36 Little Birds. The package would also include HARM anti-radar missiles, more precision-guided JDAM bombs, Hellfire missiles and sophisticated displays mounted on fighter pilots’ helmets. Although previous arms sales to Saudi Arabia have often encountered strong opposition from Israel and its allies in the US Congress, the administration expected the deal to win approval and that Israel would not object to the sale.
“The Israelis I think are fairly comfortable that this configuration is not a threat to their qualitative, military edge,” he said.
Israel will be getting a more advanced, “fifth generation” US fighter jet in the F-35.
Lawmakers would also likely support aircraft production that “involved” 77,000 jobs across the country, the official said, though it was unclear how many new jobs would be created by the deal.
Some congressional officials, however, said the deal would be subject to tough scrutiny by lawmakers and might be revised.
“There is serious concern about some sensitive material which is expected to be included in the deal,” said one source, who told reporters that Obama aides were to brief congressional staff on the deal on Monday.
“You can fully expect that a hold will be placed on this deal,” another senior congressional source said.
A “hold” would come from the chair or ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee or Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which typically must sign off on arms transfers and could change what is in the package.
It remained unclear if the Saudis would opt to buy the entire US$60 billion package or a lower number of aircraft, the defense official said.
“But in any world, this is an enormous arms package. In fact, the notification is the largest of its kind in history,” he said.
The administration is also in talks with the kingdom about potential improvements to the country’s naval fleet and missile-defenses, which could be worth tens of billions of dollars more, the official said.
The Saudis were looking at possibly buying littoral combat ships, with the naval talks at a more advanced stage than discussions on ballistic missile defenses, he said.