President Bush yesterday announced the sale of 72 F-15 fighter planes to Saudi Arabia, offering another election-campaign boost to defense industry workers and treading a sensitive line between U.S. alliances in the Middle East.
Appearing before cheering, flag-waving workers in St. Louis, where the F-15 is manufactured by the McDonnell Douglas Corp., Bush stressed the domestic economic benefits of the sale, which the White House said was worth $9 billion. Bush said he had also considered the impact that providing the advanced planes to Saudi Arabia would have on Israel's ability to maintain a "qualitative edge" over Arab armies.
"In these times of economic transition, I want to do everything I can to keep Americans at work," Bush said during a whisk-in, whisk-out trip to McDonnell Douglas headquarters. "But as commander-in-chief, I . . . had to consider the implications for stability in the Middle East."
Administration officials said consultations were underway between senior U.S. and Israeli officials about compensation for the Israeli military, and the White House and U.S. Jewish leaders predicted the Saudi purchase would encounter little opposition in Congress. By law, a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress would be required to block the sale.
The deal is only the latest in a glittering catalog of plums Bush has bestowed on voters in key states during recent days. Last week he informed workers at General Dynamics Corp. in Fort Worth, Tex., that he would allow Taiwan to buy $6 billion worth of F-16 jets. During a Midwest swing he unveiled billions in farm subsidies, although he has chastised Europeans for indulging in similar payments.
About 7,000 workers in McDonnell Douglas facilities in St. Louis and Tulsa will owe their jobs to the Saudi deal, and as many as 40,000 workers nationwide, according to Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), a supporter of the sale who traveled with the president to deliver the news.
While most of the jobs will be concentrated in Missouri, California and Connecticut -- home to 73 of the 270 electoral votes necessary to elect a president -- subcontractors of the F-15 are spread over at least 45 states.
One ranking Defense Department official, who has long advocated the F-15 sale to Saudi Arabia and the F-16 sale to Taiwan, acknowledged that the timing of both decisions owed much to the U.S. campaign season.
"We're making a lot of good foreign policy lately for domestic political reasons," he said.
The U.S. Central Command, which has operational responsibility for defending American interests in the Persian Gulf, has been particularly eager to complete sales of the F-15 and other high-technology weapons to Saudi Arabia.
Concerned about defending the gulf's strategic oil reserves from potential attack by Iraq or Iran, U.S. military planners are convinced they will never again have five months to build up U.S. forces there as they did before the Persian Gulf War last year. As a result they are eager to beef up Saudi forces with U.S. equipment that can be mobilized easily in a crisis.
The $9 billion package unveiled yesterday includes $5 billion for 72 F-15 planes as well as $2.1 billion for support and spare parts, $800 million for construction of infrastructure, $400 million for munitions and $120 million for training, among other elements, according to administration officials.
Forty-eight of the F-15s will resemble the most advanced version of the plane, the F-15E Strike Eagle, which has never before been exported. However, administration officials said the planes would be modified with less sophisticated navigation equipment and somewhat downgraded weapons systems, so they would not have the same ability as the F-15E for air-to-ground attack.
The other 24 planes will be F-15Hs, successor to the F-15C and F-15D models Saudi Arabia has purchased in the past, officials said. Saudi Arabia now has 260 combat aircraft, including 80 F-15s.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin indicated last month that his government would acquiesce to the sale, in part because there was little chance of blocking it in the U.S. Congress. Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton came out in support of the deal last week, and it is strongly supported by House Majority leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), whose home town is the site of McDonnell Douglas headquarters.
However, Israeli military leaders said this week that they are concerned about the transfer of the planes to an Arab state. Although Saudi Arabia has been a key U.S. ally in the conflict with Iraq, it is still technically at war with Israel.
"We would be happy if Arab states did not receive this plane," Israeli Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak told reporters in Jerusalem this week.
Sources said White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III and Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney had spoken with senior Israeli officials in the last several days, and that the United States and Israel had agreed "in principle" to upgrade their military cooperation.
Sources close to the talks said Israel had been promised access to previously restricted U.S. military technologies as well as closer coordination with the Pentagon in planning and intelligence. Administration officials, however, cautioned that while many possible concessions to Israel had been discussed, nothing specific had been agreed.
Bush announced the Saudi sale on the day his administration sent legislation to Congress providing Israel with $10 billion in loan guarantees over five years to help absorb Soviet immigrants. Officials said that under terms of the legislation, Israel would pay the cost of providing the guarantees and the package would not cost U.S. taxpayers money unless Israel defaulted on its loans.
The administration has been considering the sale of new F-15s to Saudi Arabia since the end of the gulf war. However, the Clinton campaign yesterday charged that Bush's announcement of the plane sale was politically motivated. Bush's visit to St. Louis, Clinton aides noted, was added to the president's schedule the night before he left Washington, and earlier this week, Bush told a B'nai B'rith convention that he had not made up his mind on the sale.
"A funny thing happened on the way to St. Louis," said George Stephanopolous, Clinton's communications director. But White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater told reporters that the timing of the president's approval had nothing to do with politics.
"We've been considering it all this time to make sure it didn't upset the balance of power" in the Middle East, he said.
Diehl reported from Washington, von Drehle from St. Louis. Staff writers Barton Gellman in Washington and David Hoffman in Jerusalem contributed to the report.
All-weather,twin engine fighter; also made in Strike Eagle ground attack version.
Length: 64 ft.
Wing span: 43 ft.
Max. speed: 1,653 mph (2 1/2 times speed of sound)
Ammunition: 20mm gun; Sparrow, Sidewinder or AMRAAM missiles
Manufacturer: McDonnell Douglas
SOURCE: KRT Graphics