Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The U.S. Needs to Sell F-15s More Than Saudi Arabia Needs to Buy Them

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The U.S. Needs to Sell F-15s More Than Saudi Arabia Needs to Buy Them

Article excerpt

The U.S. Needs to Sell F-15s More Than Saudi Arabia Needs to Buy Them

A familiar Washington ritual is being played out again: another Saudi Arabian request for U.S.-built aircraft, strongly opposed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), becomes a political hot potato in an election year. The last time Saudi Arabia wanted F-15s, in 1986, Congress effectively blocked the sale. The Saudis then gave Great Britain billions of dollars worth of business, buying not only aircraft but air bases as well.

In 1992, the stakes for the U.S. are even higher. This time, the survival of the U.S. defense industrial base is at stake.

The Saudi F-15 request was included in this year's "Javits list" of possible sales which the administration must provide Congress early each year. When AIPAC and traditional congressional supporters of Israel started to attack the sale (notification of which has not yet gone to Congress), there was widespread speculation that, in order to avoid an election year battle, the administration would wait until after November to send the proposed sale to Capitol Hill. That is still likely, but there is a complicating factor.

Because of U.S. defense cutbacks, McDonnell Douglas is nearing the end of F-15 production. The production lines will begin shutting down as early as July if no new international orders are received. Many of the 40,000 workers involved in production of various aspects of the F-15 would have to be laid off, and subcontractors and suppliers would also have to retrench. If the 72 requested F-15s are ordered before then, however, these layoffs can be avoided. If not, higher costs to restart the production lines mean higher cost per aircraft.

Saudi Arabia prefers the F-15. As it showed in 1986, however, it is perfectly willing to buy European aircraft instead, and the British and French are more than willing to sell. (It should also be noted that two very fine former Soviet combat aircraft, the Su-27 and MiG-29, are now being marketed to Western countries at very low prices.) The Saudis are also shrewd about costs. They will not pay inflated costs for F-15s resulting from stopping and then restarting production lines.

Thus a delay until next year on the Saudi F-15 request could lose the sale. That would mean that the F-15 production line remains closed for good. The U.S. aerospace industry, already in retrenchment, would suffer another loss. And McDonnell Douglas, which has built generations of fine U.S. fighter aircraft, would find itself out of the fighter business entirely. (The F-22, the successor to the F-15, will be built by a consortium of other companies.)

On March 27, six chairmen and CEOs of U.S. aerospace companies wrote a letter to President George Bush spelling out the dangers of delaying the sale. Chairman John F. McDonnell of McDonnell Douglas was joined by the heads of Martin Marietta, Hughes Aircraft, United Technologies, Northrop, and General Electric. They asked Bush to display the same "courageous leadership" he had shown in the Gulf war, noting Saudi Arabia's cooperation in that effort and support for the Middle East peace process. "The question, clearly, is not whether Saudi Arabia will be able to obtain fighters for legitimate defensive purposes, but whether they will buy American or buy European," the industry leaders noted.

A delay until next year could lose the sale.

According to the letter, "Beyond its foreign policy and military advantages, the sale of 72 F-15s to Saudi Arabia would have important implications for the U. …

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