Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 1992, Page 31

Security and Intelligence

The U.S. Needs to Sell F-15s More Than Saudi Arabia Needs to Buy Them

By Michael Collins Dunn

A familiar Washington ritual is being played out again: another Saudi Arabian request for U.S.-built aircraft, strongly opposed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), becomes a political hot potato in an election year. The last time Saudi Arabia wanted F-15s, in 1986, Congress effectively blocked the sale. The Saudis then gave Great Britain billions of dollars worth of business, buying not only aircraft but air bases as well.

In 1992, the stakes for the U.S. are even higher. This time, the survival of the U.S. defense industrial base is at stake.

The Saudi F-15 request was included in this year's "Javits list" of possible sales which the administration must provide Congress early each year. When AIPAC and traditional congressional supporters of Israel started to attack the sale (notification of which has not yet gone to Congress), there was widespread speculation that, in order to avoid an election year battle, the administration would wait until after November to send the proposed sale to Capitol Hill. That is still likely, but there is a complicating factor.

Because of U.S. defense cutbacks, McDonnell Douglas is nearing the end of F-15 production. The production lines will begin shutting down as early as July if no new international orders are received. Many of the 40,000 workers involved in production of various aspects of the F-15 would have to be laid off, and subcontractors and suppliers would also have to retrench. If the 72 requested F-15s are ordered before then, however, these layoffs can be avoided. If not, higher costs to restart the production lines mean higher cost per aircraft.

Saudi Arabia prefers the F-15. As it showed in 1986, however, it is perfectly willing to buy European aircraft instead, and the British and French are more than willing to sell. (It should also be noted that two very fine former Soviet combat aircraft, the Su-27 and MiG-29, are now being marketed to Western countries at very low prices.) The Saudis are also shrewd about costs. They will not pay inflated costs for F-15s resulting from stopping and then restarting production lines.

Thus a delay until next year on the Saudi F-15 request could lose the sale. That would mean that the F-15 production line remains closed for good. The U.S. aerospace industry, already in retrenchment, would suffer another loss. And McDonnell Douglas, which has built generations of fine U.S. fighter aircraft, would find itself out of the fighter business entirely. (The F-22, the successor to the F-15, will be built by a consortium of other companies.)

On March 27, six chairmen and CEOs of U.S. aerospace companies wrote a letter to President George Bush spelling out the dangers of delaying the sale. Chairman John F. McDonnell of McDonnell Douglas was joined by the heads of Martin Marietta, Hughes Aircraft, United Technologies, Northrop, and General Electric. They asked Bush to display the same "courageous leadership" he had shown in the Gulf war, noting Saudi Arabia's cooperation in that effort and support for the Middle East peace process. "The question, clearly, is not whether Saudi Arabia will be able to obtain fighters for legitimate defensive purposes, but whether they will buy American or buy European," the industry leaders noted.

A delay until next year could lose the sale.

According to the letter, "Beyond its foreign policy and military advantages, the sale of 72 F-15s to Saudi Arabia would have important implications for the U.S. economy. It would rapidly inject $5 billion into the economy, reduce the U.S. trade deficit and sustain 40,000 U.S. aerospace jobs and a corresponding number of jobs in the non-aerospace sector of the economy-all at no cost to the U.S. taxpayer."

There is a real possibility that U.S. defense cutbacks will cause the closing of several major production lines in the next few years if overseas orders are not found. Another example concerns the planned sale of M-1A2 tanks to Saudi Arabia, a major order placed almost three years ago. Since the U.S. Army has decided not to buy the more advanced model, it will either have to be built solely for the Saudis (which will cost more) or the Saudis will have to settle for the M-1A1 (or buy European instead).

Such considerations bear directly on whether the United States will enter the 21st century building frontline combat aircraft and tanks. It is by no means impossible that, if these production lines are closed, in a world crisis the U.S. could find itself having to start defense production from scratch.

The Israel lobby will argue that the U.S. should not sell arms in the Middle East merely to keep Americans employed. But would the F-15 sale really add to the arms race?

A Defensive Military Posture

Saudi Arabia is a large country with a small population. Its military posture is defensive: it lacks the ground forces to threaten its neighbors, or even to defend itself for any length of time against a major aggressor. That is why the West and other Arab nations came to its aid in the Gulf war. The Saudi air force is the country's finest service, but it must defend a vast area. It had never been engaged in combat, except against an Iranian intruder some years ago, until it was used against Iraqi forces in the Gulf war.

Saudi Arabia has already acquired 60 early-model F-15s from the U.S. These are F-15Cs and Ds, not equipped for ground attack, and thus limited to air patrol and air-to-air operations. The Saudis now want to acquire 72 more aircraft, 48 of them F-15Es, and 24 of them F-15Hs.

The likeliest source of controversy is the F-15E, a two-seat, dual role aircraft with excellent ground attack capabilities. The second seat is for a radar and weapons officer, giving it a much greater combat capability than the one-seat models now flown by the Saudis. The F-15E has never been sold abroad, though there is no policy banning such a sale.

Some industry publications have speculated that the U.S. will try to compromise with Congress by providing a less capable, one-seat F-15 version with some ground attack capability. That is, however, basically what Congress rejected in 1986. Whether the Saudis now would accept such a compromise is uncertain. What is certain is that if the administration does not send notification of the sale to Congress this year, McDonnell Douglas will begin shutting down production. If that happens, whichever model the Saudis are ultimately offered will cost much more to produce. Denying the Saudis the F-15E does not deny them ground attack capability. Their version of the British Tornado gave them that, and so would a number of other European and Russian aircraft.

In 1990 and 1991, half a million American military personnel went to the Gulf to defend Saudi Arabia. The Saudis say they would rather defend themselves. Why not sell them the tools and let them? 

Michael Collins Dunn is senior analyst of The International Estimate, Inc., and editor of its biweekly newsletter, The Estimate.

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