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Pentagon plans $60 billion weapons sale to Saudi Arabia

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2010; 12:58 AM

The Defense Department has notified Congress that it wants to sell $60 billion worth of advanced aircraft and weapons to Saudi Arabia. The proposed sale, which includes helicopters, fighter jets, radar equipment and satellite-guided bombs, would be the largest arms deal to another country in U.S. history if the sale goes through and all purchases are made.

Congress has 30 days to review the sale before the Pentagon and the weapons makers go into more detailed contract discussions with Saudi Arabia. Congress is expected to review the deal when it is back in session after the elections.

The arms package includes 84 new F-15 fighter jets and upgrades to 70 more F-15s that the Saudis already have, as well as three types of helicopters: 70 Apaches, 72 Black Hawks and 36 Little Birds. Saudi Arabia would also get versions of a satellite-guided "smart bomb" system, plus anti-ship and anti-radar missiles.

The deal could be completed over five to 10 years, depending on production schedules and training needed.

Defense industry analysts said the weapons sale is key to U.S. efforts to boost support among Arab allies and counter any threats from Iran. The deal is also seen as a boon for U.S. defense companies as the Pentagon tightens its budget in ways that could curb contracting opportunities.

Boeing makes the F-15, the Apaches, the Little Birds and some of the other equipment. Raytheon makes some of the anti-radar missiles.

"There's an enormous amount at stake in terms of U.S. foreign policy, credibility in the region, and the health of the aerospace industry," said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace industry analyst at the Teal Group in Fairfax. "When you sell combat aircraft you're also selling a strategic relationship. It is a symbolic commitment to consult on common defense issues, and when you operate the same equipment, that often means joint training and an ongoing military relationship."

Andrew J. Shapiro, assistant secretary for political military affairs at the State Department, said the administration had looked at the regional balance of power in the Middle East and "concluded it would not negatively impact Israel's security interests or Israel's qualitative military edge." Israel recently signed a deal to buy 20 U.S. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets.

"The U.S. gets to reinforce a relationship with an important ally," Aboulafia said. "It gets to cement its dominance on the military aerospace export market. And Israel gets a pretty good deal in return."

But some on Capitol Hill are already expressing reservations.

"It seems to be rewarding a country that hasn't been particularly helpful to any of our foreign policy objectives and one that doesn't seem to be well-suited to be a military bulwark against Iran," said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.). He said he was also "troubled" by the administration's decision to announce the arms deal while Congress is in recess.

"This is too important of a deal to be dropping in the middle of an election recess," he said. "The inescapable conclusion based on the timing is that they did not want Congress to take a hard look at this deal."

Weiner said he plans to work with congressional leaders to try to stop the deal from going through but acknowledged that it would be difficult to block.

Doing so would require approval from the House and the Senate. Defense industry analysts say Congress in the past has only been successful in getting adjustments made to arms sales - not formally blocking them.

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