On August 13, 2010, several reports appeared in the US media on plans by the Obama
administration to sell arms to Saudi Arabia valued at $60 billion over a
period of ten years. The reported deal is supposed to include 84 F-15S jets,
approximately 60 AH-64D Apache Longbow assault helicopters, and about 70
UH-60 Black Hawk utility tactical transport helicopters. The deal will also
include simulators, upgrades for existing fighter jets, and training and
Contacts for the deal were conducted secretly due to Saudi sensitivity. At
the same time, however, there were hints that the deal would not include
equipment items that could arouse serious opposition on the part of Israel,
such as long range precision guided air-to-surface missiles.
These reports are preliminary only, for at this stage what is involved is
the administration’s unofficial notification to Congressional committees
that handle arms sales. According to US law, an arms sale obliges official
notification to Congress, which is authorized to halt the deal within 30
days of receiving notification. Such official notification has not yet been
sent, but is expected to be submitted to Congress upon its return next month
from the summer recess.
The deal falls within the framework of a policy announced by President
George W. Bush in July 2007, which intended to approve a large scale sale of
arms to member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). On the one
hand, the arms sales are meant to strengthen the resilience of Gulf states
in the face of major threats, i.e., Iran, while serving as a tool to enlist
those states’ support for US policy against Iran. On the other hand, the
arms sales might to a certain degree remove the burden from the US armed
forces of defending the Gulf. President Obama’s administration has continued
and even expanded this policy.
In announcing this policy, President Bush talked about arms sales in the
amount of $40 billion ($20 billion to Saudi Arabia and $20 billion to the
other Gulf states). Since then, contracts totaling billions of dollars have
been signed with somel Gulf states – Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab
Emirates. However, no deal on a similar scale has yet been signed with Saudi
Arabia. This is not to say that Saudi Arabia has not purchased American
weapons. Up to now official requests have been sent to Congress for a large
number of deals to purchase new weapons and upgrade existing weapons,
together amounting to approximately $4 billion. However many of these
requests haven’t yet matured into signed contracts (see table) and the
current total of signed contracts amounts to about half the above sum (most
of it in a contract to purchase armored vehicles for the Saudi Arabian
National Guard – SANG).
Even if notification of the deal is submitted to Congress, it would
constitute only a first stage in the process, followed by a long phase of
negotiations over details such as specific items of equipment, prices and
payment terms, supply dates, scope of maintenance and training packages,
etc. Numerous notifications to Congress on intentions to sell weapons
ultimately fall through. Negotiations such as these are likely to continue
for several years, with the subsequent supply phase also lasting several
Several comments on what the deal appears to be:
a. While the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait preferred
investing most of their money in defensive equipment (mainly air defense and
anti-ballistic missile defense systems), the Saudi deal is for aerial attack
equipment (fighter jets and assault helicopters).
b. The F-15S jets mentioned in the reports cannot be considered
new or unfamiliar equipment. Saudi Arabia had already purchased F-15S jets
in the early 1990s. The F-15S jet is a Saudi-adapted version of the 72 F-15E
jet (the Strike Eagle, whose Israeli version is the F-15I Thunder jet). No
new version of the Boeing F-15 is currently being produced, although the
manufacturer recently revealed its proposal for a substitute for the F-35
with a model known as the Silent Eagle that includes certain stealth
features. However this proposal still has not entered any development stage.
Therefore, if the current deal is realized, it will include jets that are
not very different from those already in the hands of the Royal Saudi Air
c. This is also the case regarding helicopters mentioned in the
reports. Since the early 1990s, Saudi Arabia deployed 12 AH-64A helicopters;
about two years ago, Saudi Arabia requested the sale of 12 AH-64D
helicopters. It also requested an upgrade of its old helicopters to a
similar standard. Dozens of UH-60 helicopters are also in service, and a
number of these have been ordered recently. Therefore the deal apparently
involves increasing the number of types of helicopters already at the
disposal of the Royal Saudi Air Force.
d. The Saudi air force has recently begun to absorb the Typhoon
jet. Saudi Arabia purchased 24 of them from Great Britain, with an option
to purchase another 48 jets. This is a huge deal valued at $7-9 billion. In
order to have the contract signed, Britain’s prime minister was forced to
order the halting of the corruption investigation concerning this deal and
previous arms deals with the British BAe weapons firm.
For many years the Saudi air force has been operating parallel arrays of
American-made and British-made fighter jets. Typhoon jets will be flying
alongside Tornado jets (both the interceptor and the attack models). These
old jets will not be retired from service. Rather, the Typhoon deal includes
overhauls and upgrades to these jets.
If the purchases are realized, it would involve a considerable expansion of
the Saudi air force, particularly its fighter jet component. This will
oblige the training of manpower on a considerable scale, even if as in the
past, the Saudis will rely on a maintenance and training apparatus almost
entirely based on foreign workers employed by foreign contractors. It is
doubtful whether Saudi Arabia, where military service is not compulsory,
will be able to man this expansion.
In recent years Saudi Arabia has ordered weapons on a considerable scale,
both from the US and from other countries. The country’s capabilities in
purchasing and absorbing weapons systems on such a large scale are limited.
The likelihood that Saudi Arabia would be ready to invest money on such a
large scale is low.
Hence the gap between the submission of requests to Congress by the
administration, and contracts that are actually signed. Especially
conspicuous is the fact that aside from the Typhoon deal, the largest signed
deal was for refurbishing equipment of the Saudi Arabian National Guard,
which King Abdullah headed before ascending to the throne and remains close
to his heart. The National Guard role has more to do with protecting the
existing regime than defending against any external threats.
More than a Saudi initiative, then, the announcement of the sale is
compatible with the policy of the Obama administration – to strengthen the
defensive capability of US allies in the Gulf in the face of the Iranian
Table 1: Saudi Arms Orders from the US
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