U.S. to Sell Saudis Patriots, but F-15 Deal is off for Now

The Pentagon has informally notified Congress that it intends to sell Saudi Arabia 14 Patriot anti-missile batteries, according to congressional sources.

Such a package would be worth as much as $3 billion, said a pro-Israel lobbyist here.

Under U.S. law, any proposed arms sale costing more than $14 million must be formally proposed to Congress within 30 days after informal notification. Congress then has another 30 days to vote to block the sale; otherwise, it automatically goes through.

One congressional source said that Pentagon officials, who held a classified briefing for members of Congress on the subject Wednesday, were told there are negative feelings about such a sale on Capitol Hill.

Several lawmakers are apparently unhappy with the administration’s “piecemeal approach” to Middle East arms sales. Since Congress balked at a proposed massive sale of arms to Saudi Arabia last year, the administration has been introducing such sales in smaller chunks, none of which is likely to meet congressional opposition.

Lawmakers told the Pentagon they want a “big-picture briefing” to unveil the U.S. view of the “grand security needs of the region” in the wake of the Persian Gulf War, a congressional staffer said.

Another Capitol Hill source said the Pentagon also was told that Congress would prefer to see the United States pre-position weaponry in Saudi Arabia that could be used by U.S. forces, rather than sell new weapons to the Saudis.

The Pentagon had no formal comment on the briefing, saying only that no unclassified briefing had taken place.

NO F-15S UNTIL NEXT YEAR

The Pentagon is also playing down reports that the administration is considering selling F-15 fighter planes to Saudi Arabia.

Earlier this week, the St. Louis-based Mc-Donnell Douglas Corp. reported at an arms fair in the United Arab Emirates that the Saudis have formally asked the Bush administration for 72 F-15s, which would cost around $5 billion.

But a Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on Thursday, “I don’t see any offensive weapons sales even possibly being considered until after the new year.”

That did not surprise a pro-Israel lobbyist here, who said that no such sale would be proposed as long as there is an active peace process in the Middle East.

Absent such a process, the lobbyist said, a sale of F-15s is much more likely, but would probably be in the range of a squadron of 24 F-15s and not a full wing of 72.

Also unclear is what model F-15 would be sold to the Saudis. The Saudis want the F-15E, the most advanced version of the plane, which so far has only been sold in the region to Israel.

The McDonnell Douglas statement was a “trial balloon” designed “to force the Pentagon into supporting the sale,” the pro-Israel lobbyist charged.

The idea of selling the Saudis an additional 24 F-15s was contained in “Phase 2″ of an administration blueprint of future arms sales to the Saudis unveiled in June 1990.

The Saudis had 60 F-15Cs and F-15Ds when the August 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait took place, the maximum allowed under the 1987 Metzenbaum Amendment, which limits the number of weapons sold to the Saudis unless the president certifies otherwise.

President Bush subsequently waived the ceiling and transferred 12 F-15s that the Saudis had already paid for but were being held, in keeping with the congressional limit. He also sold the Saudis an additional 24 F-15s.

By contrast, Israel has a fleet of 55 to 60 F-15s, the pro-Israel lobbyist said.

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