The Bush administration has decided to sell Saudi Arabia F-15 fighters, M-60 tanks, Stinger missiles and other weapons in a package that could total as much as $6 billion to $8 billion to help the Persian Gulf monarchy bolster its defenses alongside the U.S. forces that are deploying there, administration officials said yesterday.
The sale, which includes 24 F-15s to be delivered now and plans for another 24 after the first of the year, is significant because it breaks the limitations that pro-Israel forces in Congress have imposed on the Saudi air force for more than five years. Congress has limited the number of the top-of-the-line warplanes that could be delivered to the Saudis to 62. The new sale would be in addition to that number, for a total of 110 planes, and would not include the more advanced F-15E ground-attack version.
The new sale, expected to be announced this week, follows substantial arms sales to Saudi Arabia that were announced this summer prior to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, including $4 billion worth of armored vehicles, TOW antitank missiles and upgraded AWACS surveillance planes. Saudi Arabia also signed a letter of intent to buy 315 of the latest M-1 tanks for $3 billion, to be delivered after 1992.
While final discussions of the new sale were underway yesterday, including a meeting between President Bush and Saudi Ambassador Bandar bin Sultan, the Pentagon doubled its earlier estimate of the cost of its deployment to defend Saudi Arabia and enforce the trade embargo against Iraq to $2.5 billion by the end of September, or roughly $46 million a day.
Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said his initial estimate of $1.2 billion for the first two months of the deployment did not take into account the escalating cost of fuel, which has increased an average of $10 a barrel, as well as a doubling of the number of aircraft carrier battle groups dispatched to waters around the Arabian peninsula and the call-up of thousands of military reservists.
Also yesterday, military officials disclosed that the massive sealift carrying the bulk of tanks, artillery and other military equipment for U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia has been seriously hampered by delays and breakdowns.
The sealift problems, which have left some U.S. ships bulging with military hardware stranded on the high seas, may delay by up to a month the arrival of key units needed to deter an Iraqi attack on U.S. and Saudi forces, military officials said.
The Army's 1st Cavalry Division still has no identified transport to the Middle East, military sources complained, and the 3rd Armored Cavalry was loading yesterday at Beaumont, Tex., on ships that cannot meet the deployment schedule set by the U.S. Central Command in Saudi Arabia.
Of the eight fast sealift ships that are carrying the first load of U.S. M-1 tanks and other equipment from the 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized), the first two have arrived in Saudi Arabia on time, but two other ships currently in transit have suffered serious mechanical problems. One of the ships, the Antares, is now forecast to be two weeks late. Both boilers on the ship failed shortly after it left port and one military official complained "it's going a little faster than the Gulf Stream" -- the mid-Atlantic current that travels about 3 mph.
These military officials said the fast sealift ships are the smallest part of the problem. They blame the greatest delays on the Ready Reserve Fleet of cargo ships maintained and kept at anchor by the U.S. government for just such a military emergency.
Only five of 38 ready reserve ships have reported to their loading ports on time, the officials said. The ships are plagued by maintenance problems. Thirteen ships that have been activated are still not ready to move their military cargo, which is piled up at various U.S. ports.
Military officials said bureaucratic restrictions on the Military Sealift Command have prevented the use of readily accessible commercial vessels, including foreign-flag vessels that bring foreign cars to the U.S. market.
"There is no shortage of sealift," one official said, "we just haven't got access to it."
U.S. officials said they have held some discussions with the Soviet Union about using Soviet airlift and sealift to carry more Arab forces to Saudi Arabia if that becomes necessary, one military official said.
Egypt, which thus far has sent fewer than 3,000 airborne troops to Saudi Arabia, is prepared to send two heavy divisions totaling 30,000 troops, but Saudi officials have yet to agree to accept them, an administration official said.
A high-level Egyptian military delegation was in Saudi Arabia this week discussing a larger Egyptian deployment, which U.S. officials said would take some pressure off U.S. forces building up to match the much larger Iraqi force occupying Kuwait.
In Egypt, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) said he had urged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to send more troops to Saudi Arabia, Washington Post foreign correspondent William Claiborne reported.
"I hope the Saudi Arabian leadership will request more forces, and I hope that Egypt and other countries will comply with the request so that it is not only the United States but the Arabs and the world at large that have forces there," Nunn said.
Mubarak, asked if Washington had pressured him to send more troops, told reporters, "Nobody is going to pressure me. I don't accept any pressures. It is well known."
Pentagon spokesman Williams said at a briefing that Iraqi armed forces in occupied Kuwait and in staging areas in southern Iraq have grown to 265,000. Last week, Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney had said there were 160,000 to 200,000 Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait and southern Iraq.
"We have seen a gradual buildup of Iraqi forces in the region over the last several days, along with a shifting of some forces in the region," Williams said, adding that they remained in a general defensive posture that could still translate quickly into an offensive mode.
"I certainly wouldn't describe it as less threatening," he said.
The total Iraqi forces now in Kuwait was put at 150,000, with an additional 115,000 "in areas of Iraq generally north and west of Kuwait," Williams said.
He said the Iraqi forces are supported by 1,500 tanks, 1,200 other armored vehicles and 800 artillery pieces.
Key members of Congress have been briefed on the new arms sale to Saudi Arabia, which includes 50 Stinger antiaircraft missile launchers and 200 missiles. It also includes thousands of rounds of depleted uranium artillery shells for the 150 M-60 tanks, giving the the Saudis the capability to attack the Soviet made T-72 tanks in the Iraqi inventory.
Israel sent the director general of its defense ministry, David Ivry, to Washington for secret consultations on the sale and other Israeli concerns about the U.S. deployment in the Middle East, according to a Pentagon official. Ivry met with State Department officials yesterday and was scheduled for a round of high-level meetings at the Pentagon today.
Among other things, Israeli officials would like more intelligence-sharing with Washington on Iraqi chemical weapons facilities.
Bush administration officials yesterday said they could not confirm reports from Israel that Jordan was training Iraqi crews on U.S.-made Hawk missile batteries captured in Kuwait. The reports also said that Jordan was flying reconnaissance flights along its border with Saudi Arabia and sharing that intelligence with Iraq.
A U.S. military official said, however, that Jordanian military officials may have helped Iraq understand the Hawk system, but that such military-to-military contacts had now ceased.
In any case, several U.S. officials said the State Department was preparing a strong diplomatic message to Jordan's King Hussein, telling him that U.S. and international economic assistance to Jordan in the near future would depend on Jordan's clear compliance with the United Nations embargo against Iraq, an end to training and intelligence-sharing arrangements between the Jordanian and Iraqi military, and closure of Jordan's port at Aqaba and its highways to Iraq-bound traffic.
At the Pentagon briefing yesterday, Williams said 174 ships have been intercepted by U.S. warships enforcing the embargo.
Williams also said the $2.5 billion cost estimate for Operation Desert Shield did not take into account possible offsets, such as the fact that Saudi Arabia has agreed to pay for all or a substantial portion of the fuel costs incurred by U.S. air forces deployed there.
Cheney last week invoked emergency powers to exceed the 1990 defense budget in order to outfit and provision the estimated 150,000 U.S. troops that will be in Saudi Arabia by the end of the first phase of the deployment in early October.