Monday, September 13, 2010

US-Saudi Arms Deal

. Monday, September 13, 2010

It looks like my post early this morning about arms sales and economic-political decision making had some pretty fantastic timing. Al-Jazeera and The Guardian are reporting that President Obama is on the verge of authorizing a record $60 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia in which the US will sell the Saudis "as many as 84 new F-15 fighters, upgrade 70 more, and [...] three types of helicopters - 70 Apaches, 72 Black Hawks and 36 Little Birds" as well as other sophisticated weapons systems.

There are some pretty interesting political questions and angles to this story. The first question: Why? The official explanation being bounced around by both administration officials and analysts is about countering growing Iranian influence in the region. This deal will modernize Saudi defense capabilities and advance short-range offensive capabilities. The administration is trying to use Saudi Arabia to balance Iranian power in the region (not necessarily a new idea). This deal will also deepen and further solidify US-Saudi Arabian cooperation in the Middle East for years to come, as the delivery of the entire package is expected to take roughly a quarter-century.

But why only F-15 aircraft? F-15's are one of the most successful fighter aircraft around (so they're dependable), but they aren't the most advanced nor newest toy on the market. They've been around since the early 1970's. Saudi Arabia has enough resources to splurge on top-caliber fighter aircraft and weapons systems, so money isn't particularly a constraint. Why not the F-22 or the F-35? It looks like Israeli influence played a strong role in preventing the transfer of newer long-distance aircraft with stealth technology to the Saudis as this would decrease Israeli primacy as far as weapons technology in the region. The Israelis also objected to including long-range capabilities on the F-15's that will be delivered as they sought to limit long-range strike capabilities by the Saudis, thus reducing the risk of a future Saudi air strike. Also, the Israelis have put in their own orders for the new stealthy F-35 which is another reason they don't want the US to also sell them to the Saudis.

What does the US get out of all this? Well, the administration will absolutely push the jobs angle pretty hard. During these slow economic times, with mid-term elections coming up in November and a 9.5% unemployment rate, the Obama administration will seek to sell this agreement to the American public by arguing that the deal will create about 75,000 jobs for Americans, although the majority of these jobs will be at companies like Boeing, GE, and Lockheed Martin. These companies don't typically hire construction workers, financial professionals, real estate agents or other employees from hard-hit sectors of the economy. These new jobs will go to highly skilled, college-educated workers, or the types of workers that already have good jobs in a sector with relatively low unemployment rates. Recent graduates in engineering, physics, project management and other aircraft-manufacturing related sectors will also benefit. Yes, there may be indirect employment gains in retail and other sectors as those 75,000 workers in those new jobs spend their salaries, but I wouldn't count on these new jobs to make much of an impact on aggregate demand or unemployment numbers. But that doesn't necessarily matter in the short run. In the eyes of the Obama administration, stronger military ties with Saudi Arabia, countering Iranian influence in the Middle East and the perception that new jobs for Americans are being created is enough of a reason to proceed with the agreement right now.


Emmanuel said...

Alex, how do you know that Israeli pressure is behind limitations placed on Saudi Arabia buying more advanced equipment? They've flow F-15s since 1981, so maybe they're just more comfortable with this design.

Also look at the wider international context. Why would the Saudis be keen on state-of-the-art aircraft when they've already got 72 Eurofighters on order?

Alex Parets said...


Some of the reporting has cited anonymous administration and defense officials stating that the Israelis objected to including long-range packages on the F-15s sold to the Saudis. Based on that reporting I sought to identify why the Israelis would be against including these packages and then speculate as to why the Saudis may have had constraints on their ability to buy either newer or better aircraft.

The Eurofighter angle is really interesting and one I hadn't considered. If my memory serves me right that contract was signed in 2006 or 2007 and the first set of Eurofighters has already been delivered. Seeing that the Saudis will be accepting delivery on 60+ Eurofighters over the next five or so years, why would they buy more F-15s? Why not put in orders for F-35s, which won't be ready for delivery til at least 2015 and are far more capable and technologically advanced aircraft than the F-15? Maybe the Saudis prefer the F-15 to the F-35, but maybe there was some external constraint on their ability to purchase the longer-range, stealthier fighter aircraft, hence why they took the F-15. I don't really have a right answer to that question but it's fun to have some grounded speculation on the topic and the Israeli angle looks like a pretty credible path to pursue.

enoriverbend said...

Well, if I were in charge of DoD, I wouldn't want to give the Saudis the absolute coolest rad new toys because of past history like this:

"The Saudis have also been accused of retransferring U.S. military equipment or technology without U.S. approval in violation of obligations under the Arms Export Control Act. The Saudis allegedly gave Iraq 1,500 U.S. 2,000-pound bombs during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War (Los Angeles Times, 14 September 1992). "Inadvertent" transfers of bombs and vehicles to Syria and Bangladesh during the Gulf War have also been reported (Arms Control Today, May 1992). Another "inadvertent" transfer almost took place when an asylum-seeking Saudi F-15 pilot flew his aircraft to Sudan in November 1990."

Anonymous said...

The Saudis can't buy the F-22. Nobody can because by law it can't be exported. The F-35 may have been a natural choice, but Israel probably doesn't want them to have them. In reality, the Saudis don't buy fighters with the intention of using them in combat. They've bought Eurofighters and F-15s because they want influence. Also, don't sell the F-15 short. A lot of the development in the fighter world over the past 30 years has taken place in the world of sensors, targeting systems, defensive systems,and engine power/reliability rather than in aerodynamic shape of the aircraft. The current model is still fast, still highly maneuverable, and still fitted with highly advanced sensors.

US-Saudi Arms Deal




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