WASHINGTON—The Obama administration plans to sell advanced F-15 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia but won’t equip them with long-range weapons systems and other arms whose inclusion was strongly opposed by Israel, diplomats and officials said.
The proposed $30 billion, 10-year arms package, which would be one of the biggest single deals of its kind, has been a source of behind-the-scenes tension during months of negotiations. Israeli officials have repeatedly conveyed their concerns in private that the U.S. risks undermining its military advantage by equipping regional rivals with top-flight technologies.
U.S. officials say they provided “clarifications” in recent weeks about the deal to help damp Israel’s qualms. Two officials close to the negotiations said Israel still had some reservations, but that the country isn’t expected to challenge the sale by lobbying Congress, which can hold up the deal or push for assurances of its own. The administration is expected to formally notify Congress of its plans as early as next month.
The information-sharing with Israel is part of a longstanding commitment by successive U.S. administrations to maintain its military edge in the region. Congress has the power to block any weapons sales deemed detrimental to Israel’s military advantage.
The tussle is a window into the White House’s delicate balancing act in the Middle East. The administration has championed advanced weapons sales to Gulf states as a way to check Iranian power. In addition to Saudi Arabia, the U.S. has moved to sell arms to the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf states, as well as support on a smaller scale the Lebanese army and Palestinian security forces in the West Bank.
Iran is far from the only security challenge facing Saudi Arabia, which has considerably beefed up its standing army since Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, when the ruling Saud family began to see potential border troubles as a more serious threat.
Earlier this year, Saudi armed forces sustained heavy losses during extended skirmishes with Yemeni rebels on the southern border, the kind of flare-up a new crop of fighter jets would seemingly be ideal to fight.
But the scope and size of the Saudi deal has unnerved Israel and its allies in Congress at a time when U.S.-Israeli relations are particularly unsteady.
Under the proposed sale, the 84 Boeing Co. F-15s for Saudi Arabia will have onboard targeting systems similar to those offered to other foreign governments, officials say. They aren’t as technologically advanced as F-15s flown by the U.S. military.
More critically for Israel, an official in the region said, was the Obama administration’s decision to not offer Saudi Arabia certain weapons components. Top among them: so-called standoff systems, which are advanced long-range weapons that can be attached to F-15s for use in offensive operations against land- and sea-based targets.
Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell declined to comment on the details of the negotiations, but said: “We have been working very closely with the Israeli government at the highest levels to address their concerns on this and other issues.”
He added: “Israel is not the only one with security concerns in the region and we have responsibilities to other allies as well.”
The Saudi Embassy in Washington said it had no comment on any arms sales. The Israeli Embassy in Washington declined to comment on any assurances Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak may have received. An Israeli official described the talks in the U.S. on the Saudi package as “constructive.”
It isn’t uncommon for the U.S. to sell top-end equipment with less-advanced weapons systems and armor. In previous deals, the Saudis provided special assurances to the U.S. that they wouldn’t base F-15s near the Israeli border, but those restrictions have lapsed.
“We have to plan for shifting sands,” a senior Israeli official said, pointing to the 1979 Iranian revolution and gains by Islamists in Turkey and Lebanon as justification for being wary of a heavily armed Saudi military.
After a round of talks in Washington late last month between Mr. Barak and top U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Israeli officials said they felt more comfortable about how the F-15s would be equipped. The U.S. argued to Mr. Barak that the proposed sale would strengthen moderates in the Gulf, ultimately bolstering Israel’s security.
U.S. officials say the F-15s in the package will be “very capable” aircraft, comparable to the F-15s flown by South Korea and Singapore, which are among Asia’s most advanced militaries, said a senior U.S. defense official.
Officials also were adamant the U.S. didn’t make changes to appease Israel. “It’s not that [Defense Minister] Barak swoops into town, we suddenly make a bunch of concessions that the Israelis never knew about before, and they’re assuaged,” the official said. “There were no refinements, no changes.” The official said Israeli anxiety diminished “the more they’ve understood what the configuration looks like.”
Nonetheless, the initial push-back from Israel frustrated some U.S. officials at a time when President Barack Obama has sought to smooth differences with Israel’s government over Jewish settlement building and stalled peacemaking with the Palestinians.
The concept of large-scale arms sales for Arab allies was spearheaded by the George W. Bush administration as a bulwark against Iranian expansionism, and the Obama administration has expanded the effort. The Saudi deal has grown in size and scope, and it is also expected to include dozens of UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters made by United Technologies Corp.’s Sikorsky Aircraft unit.
Washington coupled its message about the Saudi configuration with a prod for Israel to commit to buying the planned F-35, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, which Lockheed Martin Corp. says it could start delivering as early as 2015, around the same time the Saudis would begin to get new F-15s. The Joint Strike Fighter is a far more sophisticated plane than the F-15.
Saudi officials view the country’s military relationship with the U.S. as important as oil in bilateral relations. Saudis have been among the top purchasers of U.S.-made arms for much of the past two decades. Because of this, Saudi officials privately chafe about the leverage Israel has had over its weapons purchases from U.S. suppliers, from its purchases of its first AWACs planes in the 1980s to the F-15 fighter-jet purchases in the early 1990s.
As a way to counter Israeli pressure against such purchases, the Saudis in recent years have broadened their acquisitions to include more European- and Russian-made weaponry. That thinking was partially behind the 2007 deal to purchase dozens of Eurofighter fighter planes from BAE Systems PLC, Saudi officials said.
Mark Heller, an analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, affiliated with Tel Aviv University, said U.S. assurances are “partially reassuring as long as the regimes controlling those weapons are interested in maintaining good relations with the United States.” But occasionally, “you get a fly in the ointment,” he said.
Flush with oil cash, Saudi Arabia has become a top weapons buyer. It spent a $36.7 billion world-wide on arms between 2001 and 2008, according to a Congressional Research Service report.