A New Arms Race in the Gulf?

The United States is selling several Arab states the Joint Direct Attack Munition, which converts unguided bombs into "smart" weapons.
The United States is selling several Arab states the Joint Direct Attack Munition, which converts unguided bombs into "smart" weapons. (U.s. Air Force)

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By Walter Pincus
Monday, January 21, 2008

The Joint Direct Attack Munition is a kit that, when added to the back end of a 500- or 2,000-pound "dumb" bomb, turns it into a lethal, all-weather "smart" weapon. The bomb can hit within four feet of a target when launched from a fighter aircraft more than 10 miles away.

The kits and bombs are a prominent part of the $20 billion U.S. arms package for Persian Gulf states that has been in the works since last summer. President Bush discussed the package with Arab leaders during his recent trip to the Gulf.

As proposed in a message to Congress on Jan. 14, the Saudis are authorized to buy 900 kits along with 550 500-pound bombs, 250 2,000-pound bombs and another 100 2,000-pounders with penetrating warheads.

The United Arab Emirates, the federation of seven city-states along the southeast corner of the Arabian peninsula, is in line to get 200 JDAM systems, along with 224 2,000-pound hard-target bombs and 488 500-pounders. The UAE has 80 F-16s in its air force.

Because JDAMs are offensive weapons, their acquisition by Arab states such as Saudi Arabia that are considered hostile to Israel has drawn concern on Capitol Hill, according to a Congressional Research Service report issued last week.

Last October, when the Saudi proposal was just a rumor, 188 lawmakers sent a letter to Bush saying they would require assurances that the JDAM kits bought by the Saudis would not "harm U.S. forces in the region or undercut Israel's qualitative military advantage," according to the CRS report.

When Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak visited Washington that month, he said he would not oppose the deal because of "understandings and arrangements with the administration," the CRS reported. The administration, since August, has told Congress of proposals to sell Israel 10,000 JDAM kits.

But there is more involved than just keeping Israel's balance of military power. CRS notes that "significant arms sales, prolonged military training programs, material pre-positioning and basing arrangements, joint exercises and direct military interventions have characterized U.S. policy toward the Gulf region."

In short, without much public debate, the Bush administration has expanded previous multilateral cooperation with Gulf states on defense, including "discussion on securing key sites, in spite of historic sensitivities regarding sovereignty and foreign participation in the regional energy industry," the CRS report says.

Is the United States starting a new arms race? Reviewing the Gulf package, Anthony H. Cordesman, a specialist in Middle East national security affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said a surge of arms sales to countries in the region is just beginning.

With oil and gas exports providing $2 trillion in revenue, Cordesman expects that "southern Gulf arms sales will be 50 to 100 percent higher over the next four years." The United States will supply only a quarter of the weapons; Russia and European nations also will push to make sales.

On the other side, Cordesman writes, the Bush administration agreed last summer to give Israel $30 billion in new funds to finance arms purchases.

The arms package -- much of which is before Congress, which can reject elements of it -- goes far beyond JDAMs and bombs. The Saudis are in line to receive $631 million in armored vehicles, personnel carriers, towed mortars and machine guns, as well as five sets of airborne early-warning and command and control systems worth $400 million. They would also buy for $220 million 40 Sniper advanced targeting pods, which would upgrade the ability of their F-15s to detect other aircraft at long range.

The UAE hopes to buy 900 Hellfire missiles and 300 blast-fragmentation warheads for use with its U.S. attack helicopters and 2,106 anti-tank TOW missiles that also can be fired from helicopters. Kuwait is to get a $328 million package of more than 3,500 TOW missiles.

A major share of the UAE package is a $9 billion advanced Patriot 3 missile defense system with nine fire units, 10 phased-array radar sets and 500 missiles. Kuwait is being offered 80 PAC-3 missiles, kits to upgrade earlier missiles and radars associated with the Patriot anti-missile defense system -- together worth $1.4 billion.

Although Bush offered the defense systems and emphasized the threat from Iran's nuclear and missile programs in talks with Gulf leaders, the CRS reports that those leaders "continue to reach out to Iranian leaders to avoid the appearance of siding as a consolidated bloc with the United States against their Gulf neighbor."

National security and intelligence reporter Walter Pincus pores over the speeches, reports, transcripts and other documents that flood Washington and every week uncovers the fine print that rarely makes headlines -- but should. If you have any items that fit the bill, please send them tofineprint@washpost.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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