U.S., Saudis discussing biggest-ever foreign arms sale

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By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 13, 2010; 8:52 PM

The Obama administration is seeking to sell Saudi Arabia advanced aircraft worth up to $60 billion in what Pentagon officials say would be the largest-ever single foreign arms deal.

A senior Defense Department official said the administration is prepared to authorize the sale of as many as 84 F-15 fighter jets and three types of helicopters: 70 upgraded F-15s, 70 Apaches, 72 Black Hawks and 36 Little Birds to the Saudis. The deal could be done over five to 10 years, depending on production schedules and the training needed.

"This gives [the Saudis] a whole host of defense capabilities to defend the kingdom," said the official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity because the deal has not been completed.

By law, the president has to give Congress a 30-day notice before making a formal offer to sell arms overseas. Congress can review the plan and pass legislation to block the sale. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has not yet received formal notification of the possible sale.

Bret Funk, a spokesman for Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R) of Missouri, where parts for the F-15 are made, said that the deal is important to the country's "strategic, national interests in the Middle East" and that Bond hopes it will preserve jobs for the fighter-jet production lines in St. Louis.

The talks between the United States and Saudi Arabia have been going on for months, but more details are coming out. The Wall Street Journal disclosed some details on Monday.

According to the military, Boeing - maker of the F-15, the Apaches and the Little Birds - has estimated that the purchase would involve 77,000 direct and indirect jobs in 44 states. Some of those would be jobs that would be kept, but an unspecified number of new jobs would also be generated, officials said.

Another deal, the senior Pentagon official said, could include selling the Saudis naval and ballistic missile-defense weapons systems that could be worth tens of billions of dollars more. The official said the Saudis continue to have internal discussions about those purchases and are watching to see the outcome of a competition to build a new Littoral Combat Ship. The Navy is choosing between two contractors to build the small, maneuverable ship, which operates close to shorelines.

Defense industry analysts said the sale of the aircraft is a key toU.S. efforts to boost support from Arab allies against Iran.

"The U.S. is trying to create the strongest effort to deter and contain Iran," said Anthony Cordesman, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "If you look at all of these sales, the U.S. is working to create a Saudi Air Force that is far more capable than Iran. These sales help give Saudi Arabia the capability to convince Iran that it can't use missiles or air power against Saudi Arabia or its neighbors."

Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace industry analyst at the Teal Group in Fairfax, said the overseas weapons market has become more active in recent years. Last year, the U.S. exported $3.2 billion in combat aircraft overseas, up from $2.4 billion in 2008. Among the biggest buyers in 2009 were Singapore for $1 billion worth of F-15 aircraft; Greece and Poland, receiving $1.9 billion worth of F-16s; and Australia, receiving $200 million worth of F-18s.

Aboulafia said the F-15s are the most advanced aircraft the United States would probably be willing to sell to the Saudis. Another more advanced aircraft, the F-35, isn't ready and doesn't carry as much weaponry as an F-15, he said, and "it would be harder for political reasons to sell the Saudis the F-35."

Although he said Israel has historically been uneasy with U.S. military sales in the Arab world, he noted that Israel got funding for anti-ballistic missile systems and is among the first customers for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Loren Thompson, a defense industry consultant, said the aircraft and naval weapons sales would be boosts for U.S. defense contractors. They have been looking to increase their overseas business, as defense spending by the Pentagon is expected to remain flat or decline slightly in coming years.

"With domestic demand for weapons headed down, the big defense companies have been looking overseas to customers like Saudi Arabia to make up the difference," he said. "Those countries have money to spend at a time when the U.S. government is in dire fiscal straits."

Sikorsky, which is owned by United Technologies, makes the Black Hawk helicopters.

The Pentagon said on Monday that it would not discuss any details of the aircraft sales until the deals are complete.

hedgpethd@washpost.com


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