Egypt's defense minister was quoted today as saying the Carter administration is ready to arm Egypt without restrictions on the type of weapons, including the F15, the most advanced fighter in the U.S. arsenal.
The assertion by Kamal Hassan Ali to the military correspondent of Cairo's Al Ahram newspaper came after talks yesterday with U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense David McGiffert, who came here to relay President Carter's response to a long Egyptian shopping list for American arms.
Possession of the F15 with its speed range and electronic gear would lift the Egyptian Air Force to a new level. It also would raise the possibility of increased opposition from Israel, where some officials already are complaining about U.S. plans to supply Egypt with the less sophisticated F16 fighter.
Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin expressed concern in Tel Aviv about Ali's claims of U.S. readiness to supply Egypt with new arms and said Israel is "having discussions with our American friends" about the matter.
[U.S. officials in Washington, questioned about Ali's claim, said there would be no comment while McGiffert is in the Middle East discussing arms supplies.]
For the first time, Ali told the paper, the United States seems willing to put Egypt on an equal footing with Israel in armaments. This is an indication that the Carter administration is prepared to give support to its friends in the Arab would and that President Anwar Sadat's peace policies are paying off, he added.
McGiffert and his team of Pentagon officials flew to Israel today for two days of talks, after which they are to return here for more negotiations with the Egyptians.
Sources close to the negotiations indicated that the United States is seeking to explain to Egyptian officials that there is a limit to what Washington can supply and that Egypt should choose what it wants within the limit. U.S. officials also are said to be suggesting -- without giving an outright no -- that the F15 could be too expensive, complicated and difficult to maintain for Egypt's needs and abilities.
Ali previously has made it clear that the F15 is a high-priority item for Sadat who is eager to have a military force with regional reach and to demonstrate to his Arab foes that friendship with Washington pays dividends.
In addition, possession of even a small number of F15s would have high symbolic value. Israel already has some and used them with deadly precision in downing several Syrian Mig fighters last fall.
The Carter administration has announced plans to supply Egypt with F16 fighters, M60 tanks and a variety of other weapons under a military aid package estimated to cost about $4 billion over five years.
This comes on top of a $1.5 billion special aid package granted Egypt at the time of the signing of the peace treaty with Israel last March 26.Under those credits, Egypt already has received about 20 F4 Phantom jets and is due to get a total of about 35 of the Vietnam-era fighter-bomber.
Negotiations also are under way for assembly of F5E fighters and Bell 214ST helocopters under U.S.-financed deals with Egypt's Arab Organization for Industrialization. These would replace plans to build the French-German Alphajet and the British Lynx helicopter, which fell through when Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states dropped their financing following Sadat's peace agreement with Israel. s
The swiftly expanding military relationship with Egypt reflects the Carter administration's determination to demonstrate to Sadat and his foes the benefits of peace with Israel, U.S. officials say. In addition, since the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, Sadat's willingness to cooperate militarily with the United States has made Egypt a valuable ally, they add.
This is particularly true because of Sadat's often declared readiness to extend military aid to African or other Arab nations that request help. Egyptian assistance to such nations does not raise the same red flags that similar U.S. assistance would, the official say. Egyptian arms supplies to Morocco, officer training for Zairian forces and advisers in Oman fall into this category.
Egypt also faces a potential military threat from Libya, in the judgment of U.S. military analysts. The unpredictable Libyan leader, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, has acquired an enormous stockpile of Soviet arms, including sophisticated aircraft and rocketry, and vociferously opposes Sadat and his new policies.
In addition, the changed atmosphere in Washington since the Afghanistan crisis has resulted in a Congress more amenable to the idea of U.S military assistance to Egypt. Sadat now looms as the leader of the largest and militarily most powerful Arab country that has become the United States' best friend in the Arab Middle East.
Israeli concerns, aside from a desire to retain military superiority, center on fears that in the unstable world of Middle Eastern politics Sadat could be replaced by a less amenable Egyptian leader who could resume Cairo's traditional hostility toward the Jewish state.
In this perspective some diplomats here are recalling the recent history of Iran, where large quantities of American weapons were acquired by the shah in the name of Persian Gulf security and friendship with the Unites States -- only to end up in the hands of the new revolutionary leadership determined to rid the gulf of U.S. influence.
Washington Post correspondent William Clairborne reported from Jerusalem:
While making a tour of a tank production line in a Tel Aviv armaments factory, Prime Minister Begin said in reply to a question about the arms deal, "The Soviet Union does not supply Egypt with arms. We are at peace with Egypt and we believe it is real peace. The question that interests us, of course, is the quantities and qualities. About this, we are having discussions with our American friends."
He was apparently referring to the arrival here of Secretary McGiffert for talks with Defense Minister Ezer Weizman and other military officials.
Weizman and McGiffert are expected to discuss the Egyptian arms deal and the proposed Israeli coproduction with the United States of a top-performance warplane for the 1990s. McGiffert also is scheduled to visit two airbases being constructed for Israel by the United States in the Negev desert.