U.S.-Saudi Arms Deal: Congress Should Take A Closer Look

Volume 1, Number 29, November 12, 2010

The initial 30-day clock for Congress to review the $60 billion U.S.-Saudi arms deal expires next week. Although some members of Congress have promised to fight it, lawmakers will have little time to muster a joint resolution of disapproval required to stop it at this stage, should they want to do so. Nonetheless, the unprecedented size of this deal warrants Congressional hearings and greater oversight.

On October 20, the Obama administration formally notified Congress of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which if completed in full would be valued at more than $60 billion. After the 30-day period expires, Congress retains the ability to question sales at any point. Given that full implementation of this deal is expected to take 15 to 20 years, Congress will be able to intervene, if necessary, for quite some time.

Comprised of four separate notifications,[1] the deal consists of weapons and services primarily related to air forces. It includes: 84 F-15SA tactical fighters and the upgrade of Saudi Arabia’s existing fleet of 70 F-15S’s to the F-15SA configuration; 70 Apache Longbow attack helicopters; 72 Blackhawk helicopters; and additional light attack helicopters and trainers. It also includes many missiles and bombs: 500 AIM-120C/7 advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles; 1000 joint direct attack munitions (JDAMs); more than 2000 additional laser- and GPS-guided bombs; more than 4000 Hellfire missiles; and 1300 cluster bombs, which are prohibited by the international Convention on Cluster Munitions.[2]

Additional deals are expected, but during an Oct. 20 press briefing, Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Shapiro declined to comment on naval or other possible sales not yet notified.[3] Lawmakers should pay attention to the U.S.-Saudi deal, and future sales to the region, for the following reasons:

Do These Weapons Make Sense?

Countering Iran is one of the reasons cited for the massive deal, but Saudi Arabia’s military buildup already significantly outpaces Iran’s. A September report by the Congressional Research Service found that Saudi Arabia was the number one developing world partner for arms transfer agreements between 2006 and 2009, with deals valued at $29.5 billion compared to only $0.9 billion for Iran in that period.[4] The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) also noted in October that Saudi Arabia was the largest Gulf region arms importer from 1990-2009 and had military expenditures roughly three to four times that of Iran each year from 2000 to 2008.[5] Evidence also suggests that recent UN Security Council resolutions are succeeding at blocking arms trade with Iran.[6] An April unclassified U.S. report on Iran’s military power focused not on its conventional force projection capabilities, but rather its support of terrorism and asymmetrical threats as being of most concern.[7]

In the Oct. 20 briefing, Assistant Secretary of Defense Alexander Vershbow highlighted the need for border security and countering rebel groups from Yemen. Yet, the F-15 fighters and some of the equipment in these deals have functionally no role in such operations. In U.S. actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Israeli operations in Palestinian territories and Lebanon, the over-application of force has at times drawn strong international criticism and built local resentment. When considering any deal with Saudi Arabia, where the U.S. State Department continues to report that significant human rights abuses occur,[8] Congress must be sure that weapons will not do more harm than good.

Is This the Right Approach on Iran?

Supplying arms to Saudi Arabia as well as other Gulf Cooperation Council states is an established, but controversial, regional approach vis-à-vis Iran.[9] Congress must again ask whether a massive inflow of conventional arms to Arab states in the region will only embolden nationalist voices and encourage Iran to invest more in its asymmetric capabilities, be that in greater support for terrorist organizations or lesser cooperation with the IAEA and international efforts to reign in its nuclear program.

Using Israeli Supremacy to Fuel Arms Build Up

In the Oct. 20 press briefing, Shapiro stressed that the Saudi deal would not undermine U.S. policy of making sure Israel has a qualitative military edge in the region. Vershbow indicated that Jerusalem had been consulted and that “Israel does not object to this sale.” Israel is slated to receive more advanced F-35 fighters later this decade, one part of maintaining that edge.

The ongoing transfer of yet more sophisticated hardware and continued support of Israel’s qualitative military advantage in the region is a recipe for a massive arms build up in the Middle East. Just because Israel has something better cannot be a sufficient rationale for approving future regional deals. In arming Saudi Arabia, the lessons of past support to the Shah’s Iran or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, only to later find those countries aligned against U.S. interests, are being forgotten. Congress should think about how to strengthen relations with Middle Eastern countries in ways that are not based on potentially destabilizing arms deals.

Balancing Economic Arguments

With a pledge to double exports as a means of economic recovery, this administration appears to be looking to arms sales as one mechanism for reaching those goals. With expected cuts to military spending, the defense industry is also welcoming the U.S.-Saudi and other deals. The value of these deals, however, is simply small compared to the size of the U.S. economy and its annual export of $1.6 trillion in goods and services in 2009.[10] Congress should make sure that national and international security needs trump economic concerns when it comes to weapons transfers and soberly assess possible negative security implications before turning to economic considerations. - JEFF ABRAMSON and MATTHEW SUGRUE


1-Foreign military sales notifications are hosted on the Defense Security Cooperation Agency web site: http://www.dsca.osd.mil/PressReleases/36-b/36b_index.htm

2-Trade in the sensor-fuzed weapons included in the deal are barred under the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The treaty entered into force earlier this year and has been signed by more than 100 countries, including more than two-thirds of NATO’s member states. Neither the United States nor Saudi Arabia have signed it.

3-“Briefing on Pending Major Arms Sales,” October 20, 2010 at http://www.state.gov/t/pm/rls/rm/149749.htm

4-“Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 2002-2009,” Richard F. Grimmett, Congressional Research Service, September 10, 2010.

5-“Military Spending and Arms Procurement in the Gulf States,” Carina Solmirano, Pieter D. Wezeman, SIPRI fact sheet, October 2010.

6-“The UN Sanctions' Impact on Iran's Military,” Arms Control Association issue brief, June 11, 2010. http://www.armscontrol.org/issuebriefs/iransanctionseffectonmilitary

7-"Unclassified Report on Military Power of Iran," Department of Defense, April 2010.

8-“2009 Human Rights Report: Saudi Arabia,” U.S. State Department, March 11, 2010. http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2009/nea/136079.htm

9-“Saudi Arabia: Background and U.S. Relations,” Christopher Blanchard, Congressional Research Service, June 14, 2010.

10-“U.S. International Trade In Goods And Services-Annual Revision for 2009” U.S. Census Bureau, June 10, 2010