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U.S. Announces New Arms Sales To Middle East Worth Billions

Wade Boese

IN MARCH the Pentagon announced more than $5 billion in arms deals, including advanced surface-to-air and air-to-air missile systems, with several Middle Eastern countries. Secretary of Defense William Cohen, on a March 4-12 trip to the region to bolster support for Washington's air campaign against Iraq, agreed to sales to Egypt worth $3.2 billion and sales of air-combat missiles to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. In addition, on March 26 the Pentagon notified Congress of a $2 billion proposed sale of fighter planes to Israel.

During his nine-nation visit, Cohen announced on March 11 the sale to Egypt of 200 M1A1 tank kits, 24 F-16C/D fighter aircraft, and one Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3)missile battery. While Cairo has already bought 555 M1A1 tank kits, 154 F-16C/D and 40 F-16A/B fighters, this marks its first purchase of the Patriot, designed to defend against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. The PAC-3 missiles that Cohen pledged to the Egyptians—more advanced than Patriots previously supplied to Israel, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia—are currently under development and have yet to be delivered to U.S. forces.

Cohen also offered 26 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAMs) to Bahrain on March 6 and an undisclosed number the following day to Saudi Arabia, which during 1990–1997 topped all other countries with $67.5 billion in arms purchases. Both countries will arm previously supplied U.S. F-16 and F-15 fighters with the beyond-visual-range missiles, enabling their pilots for the first time to engage multiple targets simultaneously at medium range (approximately 50 kilometers) and to "fire and forget."

The May 1998 announcement of the sale of AMRAAMs to the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—which conditioned a $5 billion direct commercial purchase of 80 U.S. F-16 fighters on inclusion of the missiles in the deal—signaled that the United States would make AMRAAMs available to other Arab states.

Prior to the UAE offer, Israel had been the only Middle East state with AMRAAMs, though Qatar had ordered the Mica, a French missile with somewhat similar capabilities, in August 1994.

On his March 8 stop in the UAE, Cohen met with government officials to discuss outstanding issues in the proposed F-16 purchase. Washington has so far refused UAE requests that it release the software codes used in the F-16's on-board electronic warfare systems. As in the earlier AMRAAM negotiations, the UAE has threatened to take its fighter buy elsewhere if its demands are not met.

Cohen also offered to share U.S. early-warning information on ballistic missile launches in the Middle East with the six Persian Gulf states he visited. Citing Tehran's testing of its 1,300-kilometer-range Shahab-3 missile in July 1998, the United States has been lobbying the Persian Gulf states to join in development or acquisition of ballistic missile defenses for the region.

Defending the latest arms deals, Cohen said that the United States was merely responding to its allies' legitimate security needs. In Egypt, he added that if Washington did not meet Cairo's arms requests, Egypt would feel "insulted" and turn elsewhere. Cohen also stated that if "any nation…wants to call upon the United States because of our technological superiority then we are of course eager to be of assistance."

On his last stop in Israel, though, Cohen reassured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the United States remains committed to "Israel's qualitative edge and military capability to protect its people." For his part, Netanyahu expressed little concern over the Egyptian sales, noting that the United States became Cairo's main arms supplier following the 1979 Camp David accords.

Israel's new request for 50 F-16C/D fighters adds to the proposed purchase of 60 F-16C/D or 30 F-15I fighters notified to Congress last September. The Israeli Defense Ministry has yet to determine the exact timing or the final quantity and models of the purchase, part of the Israeli air force's modernization. Yet by requesting a larger number of fighters now, Israel may be hoping to secure better pricing and financing for long-term purchases. According to an informed source on the Israeli military, a decision is likely prior to the first round of parliamentary and prime ministerial elections on May 17.