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Is Big Saudi Arms Sale a Good Idea?

Authors: Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at Center for Strategic and International Studies William Hartung, Director of the Arms and Security Initiative, New America Foundation Loren Thompson, Chief Operating Officer, Lexington Institute F. Gregory Gause III, Professor and chair of political science department, University of Vermont
Interviewer(s): Deborah Jerome, Deputy Editor
September 27, 2010

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Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have recently ordered U.S. weapons worth around $123 billion. The largest deal, if approved by Congress, would be a $60 billion package of U.S. arms for Saudi Arabia, including eighty-four new and seventy refurbished F-15 fighters, supplied largely by Boeing, as well as seventy Apache helicopters, seventy-two Black Hawks, and thirty-six Little Birds.

Is the deal a good idea for the United States and the Middle East? Three of four experts contributing to this CFR.org roundup basically thought so. Anthony Cordesman argues that arms sales makes sense in terms of U.S. oil interests, the U.S. need for an ally in the region that can ease the burden on the U.S. military, and helping to stop a nuclear arms race in the region. Loren Thompson and F. Gregory Gause III said the Saudis will buy arms elsewhere if the United States refuses to move forward on the sale. Thompson notes the package carefully balances Saudi requirements and Israeli fears, and Gause suggests that even if the sale doesn't create long-term stability in the region, there's likely to be some foreign policy benefit for the United States and for the Saudis. William Hartung sounded a cautionary note, warning the deal could spur a regional arms race.

Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at Center for Strategic and International Studies

The United States shares critical strategic interests with Saudi Arabia that shape the proposed Saudi arms sale. First, for all the talk of energy independence over the last four decades, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the United States will be as strategically dependent on imported oil through 2035 as it is today. These projections do not even take account of our indirect imports of oil in the form of manufactured goods, or our dependence on the health of a global economy that requires stable supply- and market-driven prices. The stability of Gulf energy exports is critical to our economy and every job in the United States

Second, U.S. military power is finite, and both the United States and Saudi Arabia face rapidly changing threats. The United States needs allies that have interoperable forces that can both fight effectively alongside the United States and ease the U.S. burden by defending themselves. Iran already poses a massive asymmetric naval-air-assault force threat to the Gulf states. The U.S. invasion of Iraq has left Iraqi forces a decade away from being a counterbalance to Iran; Saudi Arabia is the only meaningful regional power to work with. Additionally, al-Qaeda in the peninsula is based in Yemen, and the threat of terrorism and outside infiltration means highly mobile Saudi forces are critical to the security of Saudi energy and civil facilities. Helping Saudi Arabia create a combination of effective air and naval power also helps ensure the security of tanker and other shipping in the Gulf of Oman and a steadily more unstable Red Sea.

"The United States needs allies that have interoperable forces that can both fight effectively alongside the United States and ease the U.S. burden by defending themselves."

Third, Iran already poses a missile and chemical weapons threat and may pose a nuclear one within the next three to five years. Upgrades of the Saudi Patriots create a base for an integrated approach to air and missile defense. They lay the groundwork for follow-on sales of advanced missile defense systems like THAAD, and an emphasis on defense (not Saudi purchases of missiles or nuclear systems). Coupled with recent U.S. offers of "extended regional deterrence" and the creation of a Saudi Air Force that is more of a threat to Iran than Iran's conventional missiles are to Saudi Arabia, they offer the best hope of both giving Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states security and stopping a nuclear arms race in the region.

Fourth, the proposed arms sale package creates a level of interdependence that gives both the current Saudi government as well as Saudi governments for the next fifteen to twenty years a strong incentive to work with the United States. Saudi Arabia will need continuing support from the United States during the entire lifecycle of every major system sold, and no future Saudi government can ignore this fact. Moreover, the sales are large in dollar terms, but not in terms of numbers of weapons. This will not be some kind of massive build-up. Saudi Arabia had an air force with some 417 combat aircraft in 2000, and it now has only 219. The Saudi F-15 buy will not even restore the force to 2000 numbers. It will take some three to five years to deliver and put fully in service, replace some eighty-seven obsolete F-5A/Bs and F-5EIIs that were in service in 2000, and help Saudi Arabia compensate for the serious performance limits on 107 aging Tornados still in service.

William Hartung, Director of the Arms and Security Initiative, New America Foundation

On the face of it, the proposed arms deal with Saudi Arabia is a win-win situation: The United States gets jobs at a time of high unemployment; Saudi Arabia gets to bolster its military and further cement its relationship with its main protector; and Israel gets the promise of equipment superior to anything transferred to the Saudis. Best of all, say the deal's advocates, it sends a signal to Iran that the United States and its Persian Gulf allies will not be intimidated.

Or so it would seem. But the reality is much more complicated. First, to the extent that the deal is about jobs, as Boeing and the Obama administration claim, that is the wrong criterion for making a major arms sale.

Security considerations must come first. And on this front, there are serious questions that have not been addressed by the boosters of the deal. By throwing weapons at Saudi Arabia with one hand while giving them to Israel with the other, are we not simply arming both sides of a nascent arms race? Is Iran likely to be cowed by the Saudi mega-deal, or will it simply seek a way to ratchet up its own military capabilities?

"Congress and the public should think twice before signing off on what may be the first stage of a new Mideast arms race."

Is the Middle East really suffering from a dearth of advanced weaponry? In the past three years alone, the United States has offered over $30 billion in armaments to Persian Gulf states, counterbalanced by offers of a similar amount to Israel. The United Kingdom and Russia have supplied billions more to the Persian Gulf states. Attempting to create a balance at higher and higher levels of weaponry is both dangerous and unnecessary.

In addition, how stable is Saudi Arabia? In the short run, there may be no major cause for concern, but the combat planes, helicopters, missiles, and bombs that are part of the deal will last for decades. Would anyone have predicted in the mid-1970s that the heavily armed regime of the Shah of Iran would be toppled by a group of Islamic fundamentalists?

The Saudi deal will no doubt go through, but it shouldn't. It consists primarily of offensive weapons--fighter planes, attack helicopters, and guided bombs--that serve no constructive purpose. Fighter planes and guided bombs aren't relevant to addressing the potential threat posed by Iranian missiles, nor are they likely to dissuade Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Combat aircraft and attack helicopters might be used in Saudi strikes against terrorists and separatist groups in northern Yemen, but doing so would be counterproductive, more likely to inflame passions against Riyadh than to solve its border security problems.

Congress and the public should think twice before signing off on what may be the first stage of a new Mideast arms race.

Loren Thompson, Chief Operating Officer, Lexington Institute

Congress will closely scrutinize the proposed arms deal with Saudi Arabia to make sure it does not threaten Israel or otherwise destabilize the region. The package appears to be a careful reconciliation of Saudi requirements with Israeli fears, while also offering a strategic balance against Iran.

The biggest component of the transaction involves new and refurbished F-15 fighters, which are designed for both air dominance and attack of ground targets. The fighter sale could have been a serious problem for Israel if Saudi Arabia had been offered stealthy F-22s or F-35s, because those aircraft would have been suitable for executing a surprise attack. The F-15 is not stealthy, and although its movements can be masked through the skillful application of tactics and electronic-warfare technology, Israeli defenders should have no difficulty detecting any threatening moves.

"I see little danger to Israel in the proposed transaction. For Iran, though, the transaction presents a powerful deterrent since there is nothing in Teheran's current arsenal that can cope with the latest versions of the F-15 fighter or the AH-64 attack helicopter."

The helicopters included in the package are among the most capable in the world, but they could be easily repulsed by Israeli tactical aircraft if ever dispatched against the Jewish state. Thus, I see little danger to Israel in the proposed transaction.

For Iran, though, the transaction presents a powerful deterrent since there is nothing in Tehran's current arsenal that can cope with the latest versions of the F-15 fighter or the AH-64 attack helicopter. The radical Shiite regime in Iran constitutes the most serious military threat to Saudi Arabia, so I expect that the pending arms sale will be followed by additional agreements to modernize the Saudi Eastern Fleet in the Gulf and upgrade missile defenses.

If Congress delays or modifies the proposed transaction, the Saudi government will probably move to purchase modern weapons from other sources such as Britain or France. The kingdom needs to replace its aging Cold War arsenal, and it is surrounded by nations potentially posing a threat to its security. Little purpose would be served by declining to assist Saudi Arabia in meeting its legitimate defensive needs.

Whatever the differences may be between our governments and cultures, the Saudis have been reliable allies of America for decades and have exercised a moderating influence on the behavior of other oil-producing states. Helping them means helping ourselves.

F. Gregory Gause III, Professor and chair of political science department, University of Vermont

The Saudi arms sale will not buy much security in the long run in the Persian Gulf. But there are no good reasons not to sell the Saudis those weapons, and there are some potentially positive results (besides the economic benefits to the U.S.) that might come from the sale--most importantly U.S. leverage on Riyadh on nuclear proliferation issues.

The Iranian regional challenge is based on the political and ideological links with important state and sub-state actors in the region: Hezbollah, Hamas, various Iraqi parties, the Syrian regime, and Shia activists in the Gulf monarchies. Better fighter jets and attack helicopters will not help the Saudis to contain or roll back this kind of Iranian ideological influence.

If [the Saudis] are confident of their American security guarantee--and these big arms sales are warrants of the American commitment to their security-- American advice not to obtain nuclear weapons will carry more weight.

Still, one good reason to move ahead with the sale is that there is no good reason not to. Though some might oppose it on grounds of disliking the Saudi political system, selling or not selling the arms is not going to affect Saudi policies on democracy, women, Islam, or anything else one whit. Moral purity would be purchased at the price of reduced American regional influence.

If the arms sale could destabilize the Saudi regime, that would be a reason not to do it. Many think that U.S. arms sales to the Shah [of Iran] in the 1970s helped to bring him down, but arms were part of the larger strategic relationship, to which many Iranians objected; the arms themselves did not cause the relationship or the popular reaction against it. The Saudis and the United States are similarly tied together in the eyes of Saudi citizens and others in the region. But this arms sale would not change that perception. The larger issue is whether we are selling arms to a stable regime in Riyadh. The short answer is "yes."

Also, there are two positive foreign policy consequences that could come from the sale. Its psychological effect could give the Saudis more credibility with regional elites in their contest for influence with Iran, making potential Saudi allies in places like Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and Yemen more confident in throwing in their lot with Riyadh. And if Iran obtains a nuclear weapons capability, the Saudis would undoubtedly consider the option of proliferating themselves. If they are confident of their American security guarantee--and these big arms sales are warrants of the American commitment to their security--American advice not to obtain nuclear weapons will carry more weight.

In the end, the Saudis are going to buy weapons. If we do not sell them, Moscow, London, Paris, and Beijing will.

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