The Obama administration notified Congress it plans to sell Saudi Arabia up to $60 billion in advanced military aircraft, including F-15s equipped with bunker-buster bombs that Washington sees as part of an effort to contain Iran.
The package, the largest overseas U.S. arms deal to date, “supports our wider regional security goals in the Gulf” without undercutting ally Israel’s military edge, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro said.
“We want to make sure that they have the tools that they need to be able to defend themselves,” he said of Saudi Arabia, a key regional ally. The kingdom had no immediate comment.
Some details of the proposed sale have been known for months, but the inclusion of up to 1,000 one-ton bombs known as Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs, and other guided bombs in the package, was revealed in notifications to Congress on Wednesday.
The inclusion of these weapons would enhance the capability of Saudi Arabia’s air force to bomb hardened bunkers and tunnels, such as those that the West believes are used by Iran to hide nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
The administration said Saudi Arabia would be authorized to buy as many as 84 new F-15 advanced fighters and to upgrade up to 70 existing Saudi F-15s to a more advanced configuration.
Congress could block or amend the sale, but officials said that isn’t expected. A small group of lawmakers said they will try to block the deal, arguing it would undercut Israel and support a government with a poor human-rights record.
The package includes an upgraded fleet of attack helicopters that U.S. officials say could be used by the Saudis to bolster border security with Yemen—home to an al Qaeda affiliate of increasing concern to the U.S.—and protect key oil installations.
U.S. officials said the $60 billion figure is an estimate. Saudi Arabia is expected to commit initially to spending about $30 billion, but could come back later to purchase the rest.
Under the package, the Saudis would upgrade its attack helicopter fleet with up to 70 AH-64D Apache Longbows, 72 UH-60 Black Hawks, 36 AH-6i light attack helicopters and 12 MD-530F light turbine helicopters.
The F-15s would be equipped with advanced radar systems and could be armed with an array of missiles—up to 600 High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles used to knock out enemy air defenses, 400 Harpoons used against ships, and 300 air-to-air Sidewinders. The number of 2,000-pound guided bombs in the package tops 3,000.
The package could be followed by separate arms deals to provide the Saudis with naval and ballistic missile defense upgrades worth an additional $30 billion or more, officials said.
Rep. Anthony Weiner, a New York Democrat, accused the administration of trying to slip the Saudi deal through Congress while lawmakers were on recess to campaign for the November election. “It’s bad policy that now is further tainted by a shameful process,” said Mr. Weiner, a leading critic of arms sales to the Saudis. “This deal would destabilize the Middle East and undermine the security of Israel, our one true ally in the region.”
Congress will return, however, before the 30-day review period ends. And while Israeli defense officials expressed some misgivings about the sales, they have said they won’t oppose it. U.S. officials said Israel was consulted as the package took shape. U.S. officials say the Israelis are increasingly comfortable with the sale because of the planes will not have certain long-range weapons systems. Also, the Israelis are in line to buy a more advanced fighter, the F-35, which could start arriving in Israel in 2015, the same year the Saudis would start to get the F-15s.
Boeing Co., which makes the F-15s and the Apaches, says the Saudi package would directly or indirectly support 77,000 jobs across 44 states, according to U.S. officials.
It is unclear how many jobs, if any, would be supported by the Saudi purchase of Black Hawks, made by Sikorsky. Production levels are already high at Sikorsky, which is owned by United Technologies Co.