WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is seeking a go-ahead from Congress to sell up to $60 billion worth of sophisticated warplanes to Saudi Arabia and could add another $30 billion worth of naval arms in a deal designed to counter the rise of Iran as a regional power.
The deal would apparently represent the largest single U.S. arms sale ever approved. It would allow Saudi Arabia, the most militarily advanced of the Arab Gulf states and one of the richest countries in the world, to buy top-line U.S.-made helicopters and fighter jets with ranges that would span the Middle East and beyond.
Unlike some previous sales to Saudi Arabia, this one is not expected to be derailed by opposition in Congress or from U.S. backers of Israel, who have worried in the past about blunting Israel's military edge over its Arab neighbors.
The U.S. is realigning its defense policies in the Persian Gulf as Iran improves the range and accuracy of missiles and other weapons that could threaten Israel or U.S. allies in Europe. Besides the Saudi deal, the U.S. has pending or proposed arms sales to Kuwait, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates, and has repositioned some U.S. forces and military assets around the Gulf.
The Pentagon plans to notify Congress of the proposed Saudi sale within about a week, spokesman Col. David Lapan said Monday. Lapan would not confirm details of the Saudi shopping list pending congressional notification, but two senior defense officials said it includes up to 84 new F-15 fighter jets and three types of helicopters including the sleek Black Hawk and the missile-toting Apache.
The Saudi sale has been in the works for months, and U.S. officials have acknowledged its rough outline for months. Full details of the numbers and types of aircraft were reported by The Wall Street Journal on Monday.
The defense officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because Congress has not yet seen the entire proposal, said the Pentagon expects that Saudi Arabia would initially select about $30 billion worth of aircraft. Approval of the larger proposal would give the kingdom room to buy more warplanes later.
Congress could ask for changes or try to attach strings. U.S. and Israeli officials said they expect some members of Congress will object strongly to the sale, but not enough to block it.
Separately, the Pentagon is considering an additional request to sell up to roughly $30 billion in advanced naval technology to Saudi Arabia. The defense officials said that plan was still in the preliminary planning stage and would not come before Congress for months. It could include new patrol ships to defend Saudi coastal waters and counter the growing naval capability of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards.
The sales acknowledges the shift in U.S. and Israeli security priorities in the Gulf region, defense analyst Anthony Cordesman wrote recently.
"Strong U.S. security ties to Saudi Arabia offer Israel a far better alternative than Saudi Arabia turning to European or other suppliers and questioning U.S. support if it faces a crisis with Iran," Cordesman wrote in a Center for Strategic and International Studies analysis.
The Obama administration has repeatedly assured Israel that it is committed to protecting the Jewish state's military advantage, said Jonathan Peled, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington.
"We have had a close, consistent dialogue about it," and Israel accepts the U.S. rationale for the sale "even though we are not thrilled about it," Peled said.
U.S. and other diplomats said Defense Secretary Robert Gates laid out the reasoning behind the proposed Saudi sale during meetings with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in recent months.
Washington plans to counterbalance the sales to Arab nations with $30 billion in military assistance to Israel over 10 years. Israel is buying about 20 advanced American F-35 fighter jets worth $4 billion, to be funded by U.S. military aid to the country.
"At the core of our policy is making sure that there is stability in the region and part of that stability is making sure that Israel has what it needs to be able to provide for its own security," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Monday. "So the United States would do nothing that would upset the current balance in the region."
— Associated Press Writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.