The US has signed a US$29.4 billion deal to sell 84 new F-15 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia in a long-expected move that the administration of US President Barack Obama said on Thursday would boost Gulf security amid mounting tension with Iran.
The deal is the single priciest US arms sale to a foreign country, dwarfing previous multibillion-dollar sales to Saudi Arabia, for years the biggest US arms buyer.
The sale includes the 84 advanced Boeing F-15SA fighters with cutting-edge Raytheon Co radar equipment and digital electronic warfare systems for which BAE Systems is the key supplier.
Also included are upgrades that will bring Saudi Arabia’s 70 older F-15s up to the new standard, as well as HARM AGM-88 Anti-Radiation Missiles, Laser JDAM and Enhanced Paveway munitions and related equipment and services.
The deal was formally sealed by Saudi Arabia on Saturday last week, days before Iran repeated threats to close the Strait of Hormuz in response to mounting US and European economic sanctions over its disputed nuclear program.
Administration officials described the advanced F-15s as designed to bolster overall Saudi defenses in an uncertain region.
“In the Middle East right now, there’s a number of threats,” Andrew Shapiro, assistant US secretary of state for political-military affairs, told a news briefing.
“Clearly one of the threats that they face, as well as other countries in the region, is Iran,” he said.
However, the sale was “not solely directed” toward Iran, Shapiro said.
“This is directed toward meeting our partner Saudi Arabia’s defense needs,” he said.
The US has long identified Iran as a major threat, partly for suspicion that its nuclear power program is a cover for weapons building, a charge that Tehran denies.
Saudi Arabia, a key oil supplier, is also suspicious of Iran’s regional ambitions.
The Obama administration in October last year notified Congress of the proposed F-15 sale as part of a potential package valued at up to US$60 billion over 10 to 15 years, including Boeing Apache AH-64 attack helicopters, munitions, spare parts, training, maintenance and logistics.
The first new F-15s are expected to be delivered to Saudi Arabia in early 2015, an administration release said.
The head of Boeing’s military business, Dennis Muilenburg, said the deliveries would take about five years to complete, extending the F-15 production line toward the end of this decade.
The first modified Saudi F-15s are expected to enter overhaul in mid-to-late 2014.
Saudi Arabia was the biggest buyer of US arms from Jan. 1, 2007 through the end of last year, with signed agreements totaling US$13.8 billion, followed by the United Arab Emirates, with US$10.4 billion, according to a Dec. 15 Congressional Research Service report.
The announcement the F-15 deal had been clinched came as Obama swings more into campaign mode for a bid for a second term in November next year, a campaign likely to be fought over the US economy and job growth.
A White House spokesman said the deal would give the US economy a US$3.5 billion annual boost and bolster exports and jobs. Boeing will work with about 600 suppliers in 44 states.
The Saudi buildup, part of a wider US arming of its regional friends and allies, could eventually help offset the departure this month of the last US combat troops in Iraq.
US arms sales to Saudi Arabia often raise concern in Israel, but Shapiro said the Obama administration believed the new advanced warplanes would do nothing to curtail the Jewish state’s comparative military advantage in the region.
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