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
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."