Report: Saudi basing of F-15s may affect future U.S. sales

Special to World
Monday, November 17, 2003

Saudi Arabia's refusal to remove F-15S advanced fighter-jets from near the Israeli border could result in a U.S. decision to reduce weapons sales to the kingdom.

A report by the Washington Institute said the Saudi decision in March 2003 to base the F-15s at the air force base in Tabuk reflects a new policy by the kingdom to reduce dependence on the United States. The United States had placed restrictions on deployment of the F-15s from the first sale to Riyad in 1978.

"Although Riyad's decision to alter longstanding tacit agreements regarding the posture of Saudi forces will not significantly affect the regional military balance, such a move may make Washington more reluctant to offer future arms sales and military support to the kingdom," the report, entitled "Saudi Saber Rattling," said.

Saudi Arabia, which proposed the deployment of the F-15s at Tabuk to provide air cover for U.S. Central Command in western Iraq, has refused several U.S. requests to return about 50 F-15S aircraft from the Tabuk air base, less than 200 kilometers from Israel. At the same time, the kingdom has held several large-scale exercises in northern Saudi Arabia, including the Gulf of Aqaba near Israel.

"The longer Riyad bases F-15 squadrons at Tabuk, the more difficult it will be to get future Saudi arms sales through Congress," the report, authored by researcher Michael Knights, said. "Given that it is currently mulling U.S. avionics upgrades on the aging F-15C/D fleet purchased in 1981, Riyad may not have long to wait before finding out the price it will pay for the rare privilege of thumbing its nose at Israel."

The report said House and Senate committees are expected to discuss Saudi violations of U.S. restrictions on the F-15s in meetings regarding future arms requests by Riyad. The report pointed out that more than 1,000 employees from F-15 manufacturer Boeing were required to maintain this fleet.

The United States imposed several restrictions on the sale of F-15s to Saudi Arabia. These included a ban on conformal fuel tanks and a downgrade of the tactical early-warning suite of the F-15S to reduce its potential effectiveness against Israeli missiles. Riyad bought 75 F-15S, a derivative of the U.S. Air Force F-15E, in 1995.

But the report said U.S. administrations have failed to implement many of the restrictions. In 1981, the first shipment of F-15C/Ds to Saudi Arabia included conformal fuel tanks, meant to increase the range of the aircraft.

The F-15S was also equipped with conformal fuel tanks with weapons hardpoints, which enabled aircraft to carry more weapons at longer ranges.

"Therefore, when the kingdom deployed 50 F15Ss to Tabuk airbase in March 2003, it neutralized the final safeguard of Israel's strategic depth and contravened a restriction that had been placed on F-15 sales since 1978," the report said.

The report does not expect Saudi Arabia to maintain the F-15s at Tabuk indefinitely. Tabuk does not have sufficient maintenance and logistics support for the F-15 and the fleet remains vulnerable to Israeli attacks. Moreover, Saudi Arabia remains short of F-15 crews.

Knights said U.S.-Saudi military relations have significantly declined over the past decade. The report said Saudi Arabia could not maintain the huge military it had created, which included annual spending of $21.2 billion on defense since 1998.

"Most of the projects outlined in the U.S.-Saudi Joint Security Review -- in which the ambitious Saudi defense policy of the early 1990s was conceived -were never completed," the report said. "For example, in the five-year plan for 1996-2000, the kingdom's defense budget was underfunded by an average of 13 percent each year."

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