The Pentagon has just sent Congress Saudi Arabia’s latest shopping list, topped with 84 F-15 jet fighters and 190 helicopters, as predicted here last month. It’s always funny how some quantities are round — 200,000 20mm cartridges, 300 AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles, 1,000 2,000-pound GBU-31B V3 Joint Direct Attack Munitions — and some are not: 193 F-110-GE-129 Improved Performance Engines, 338 Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing Systems, 462 AN/AVS-9 Night Vision Goggles. Defense folks suggest the need for accountability of bullets and bombs — and how they are packed on pallets — is to blame for so many zeroes in the kinetic column.
A top official at the State Department explained Wednesday why the Saudis need such military hardware — “counter-terrorism” was the first reason cited — and said the U.S. has no concerns entering into an arms sale likely to stretch for decades into the future with an autocratic, oil-rich regime:
QUESTION: Who does Saudi Arabia need to defend itself against with these – with this hardware?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE FOR POLITICAL-MILITARY AFFAIRS ANDREW SHAPIRO: Well, I think that they’ve got a number of threats in the region. We’ve worked together closely with them on counter-terrorism. It’s a dangerous neighborhood, as you know, and we want to ensure that they have the tools that they need to be able to defend themselves against all manner of threats in the region.
QUESTION: Or, actually, here – let’s just – let’s not beat around the bush. This is about Iran, right?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHAPIRO: It’s not – no, this is about support —
QUESTION: It’s not?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHAPIRO: It’s not solely about Iran. It’s about helping the Saudis with their legitimate security needs, and they have a number of legitimate security needs. Obviously —
QUESTION: Is that one of them?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHAPIRO: Sure. There’s – this is – they live in a dangerous neighborhood, and we are helping them preserve their – and protect their security in a dangerous neighborhood against legitimate security threats…
QUESTION: Spinning off from that same idea, Mr. Shapiro, you said that you assessed the impact, potential impact of this. In the region in general, is there the possibility that this might spark a conventional arms race, increase the tension in that region rather than guaranteeing it?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHAPIRO: No, and that’s a very good question. And indeed, I made reference to our conventional arms transfer policy, and that’s one of the things that we look at, is we do not want our arms sales to be destabilizing. But we – in our view, this arms sale has the opposite impact by providing greater security capability for a key partner in the region, and that we think that it will enhance regional stability and security rather than diminish it…
QUESTION: At a time when Europe has embarked on big defense cuts, does the fact that the U.S. is involved in so many arms sales to autocratic Middle Eastern countries give you pause about where these arms may be in 10 or 20 or 30 years’ time?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHAPIRO: …When we conduct an arms sale, we go through an extensive analysis of what impact it’ll have on the region, its potential impact and its actual impact. And we’re comfortable that this sale will serve to enhance U.S. national security.
Back at the Pentagon, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency echoed the diplomat’s words. “The F-15SA will help deter potential aggressors by increasing Saudi’s tactical air force capability to defend KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] against regional threats,” DSCA says. “This approach will meet Saudi’s self-defense requirements and continue to foster the long-term military-to-military relationship between the United States and the KSA.” Last time the Saudis were threatened — by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 — the kingdom sought U.S. troops, which were deployed to Saudi Arabia and acted as an accelerant to Osama bin Laden’s anti-Americanism. “The proposed sale of this service will not alter the basic military balance in the region.”
If that’s true, the Saudis are being taken for a ride, and Iran — the point of the sale — can rest easy. At a time of economic woes on the home front, there’s one other non-round number worth mentioning: the proposed deal is worth a cool $60.555 billion, including 70 AH-64 helicopter gunships (split among the F-15 package and three others, here, here and here) and 72 UH-60 Black Hawk troop-carrying choppers. The Saudis also are buying 36 AH-6i light-attack and 12 MD-530F light-turbine helicopters, ideal for crowd control.