Should We Be Selling Tons of Bombs and Helicopters to Saudi Arabia?

The Defense Department readies one of the biggest arms deals in U.S. history

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In what will be the largest country-to-country arms deal in U.S. history, the Pentagon wants to sell Saudi Arabia $60 billion worth of fighter jets, helicopters, bunker-buster bombs, radar equipment and other weaponry. The Obama administration has defended the proposal saying it's "critical to our economic interests" and Congress now has 30 days to review the deal. Is this massive arms deal a wise decision?

  • Here Are the Details  "The arms package includes 84 new F-15 fighter jets and upgrades to 70 more F-15s that the Saudis already have, as well as three types of helicopters: 70 Apaches, 72 Black Hawks and 36 Little Birds," reports Dana Hedgpeth at The Washington Post. "Saudi Arabia would also get versions of a satellite-guided 'smart bomb' system, plus anti-ship and anti-radar missiles. The deal could be completed over five to 10 years, depending on production schedules and training needed."
  • This Is Strategic, writes JJ Sutherland at NPR: "One of the purposes behind the deal... is to show support for countries in the region as we pull our troops out of Iraq. Arming Sunni Arab dominated Saudi Arabia, in an effort to counter Shi'ite Persian Iran." Arthur Bright at the Christian Science Monitor agrees:

It is Iran's long-suspected drive to acquire nuclear weapons – Tehran maintains its nuclear ambitions are peaceful – that underpin the massive arms sale to Saudi Arabia. The Christian Science Monitor reported in September that the deal is meant to contain Iran as it develops its nuclear capabilities.

  • Congress Should Weigh This Carefully, writes John Terrett at Al Jazeera:
Critics point to Saudi Arabia's poor human rights record and wonder if this is such a good idea... Saudi Arabia is frequently cited for infractions by human rights groups. US law denies security assistance to any country with a pattern of such violations. So now the Congress has thirty days to decide whether or not it should block the deal. If not, defence department procurement lawyers will open negotiations with the Saudis and formal contracts with delivery dates will be drawn up.
Israel isn't asking Congress for any particular steps in relation to the sale, such as hearings or assurances, because any concerns were discussed with the administration, said Jonathan Peled, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, without detailing any reservations.

"We're not thrilled about it," Peled said. Still, "we have a good, continuous and close dialogue with the administration and a strong, ongoing commitment to maintain Israel's military edge."

[A U.S. official] said the Saudi F-15 package also doesn't include "the types of systems the Israelis would be most concerned about," such as weapons that can be fired from long distances and could, under certain scenarios, potentially threaten Israel.
  • This Will Help the Saudis Quash Internal Dissent More Than Anything Else, writes Issandr El Amrani at The Arabist:

What will they use all of these helicopters for? Future incursions into Yemen? Riot control in Dhahran province? Counter-terrorism in the Empty Quarter? Helicopters, unlike F-15s, are not really for engaging another state (like Iran) in the case of a major regional conflict...

I'd be interested to hear what the new threat estimations to Saudi Arabia are — and would argue they are more likely to be about internal dissent and Saudi power projection into Yemen (as during the Huthi uprising) — than about a Saudi-Iran face-off. And, of course, it may be about the bottom line for Boeing and Raytheon more than any of that.

  • Interesting Side Note  "The US administration has admitted Israel was consulted widely about the sale and, as if to make a point, the Saudis are being denied access to the very latest fighter jet technology - the yet to be completed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter - of which Israel has already bought 20, with options for more," observes John Terrett at Al Jazeera.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.