US-Saudi Arms Deal Modified

US agreement not to sell advanced weapons and aircraft to Saudis may have prompted Israel to buy F-35.

Elad Benari , | updated: 05:38

F-35 Lightning II
F-35 Lightning II
Israel news photo: US Air Force

An arms package sold by the United States to Saudi Arabia will include advanced F-15 fighter jets but not long-range weapons systems and other arms.

A report in the Wall Street Journal on Sunday cited diplomats and officials who said that Israel’s opposition to the inclusion of said weapons in the arms package is what caused the Obama administration to decide to modify the deal.

The package is one of the biggest deals of its kind and would see Saudi Arabia receiving the fighter jets for a period of 10 years at a cost of $30 billion. The report explained that the deal has been a source of behind-the-scenes tension, as Israeli officials repeatedly conveyed their concerns that the US risks undermining Israel’s military advantage by equipping regional rivals with top-flight technologies.

Officials explained that under the proposed sale, the Saudis would receive 84 Boeing Co. F-15s with onboard targeting systems similar to those offered to other foreign governments. These are not as technologically advanced as F-15s flown by the US military. What is more critical to Israel, explained the WSJ report, is that the administration in Washington not offer Saudi Arabia certain weapons, among them standoff systems which are advanced long-range weapons that can be attached to F-15s for use in offensive operations against land- and sea-based targets.

US officials have provided what were called "clarifications" to Israel about the deal, and, while Israel still has some reservations, it is not expected that it will challenge the sale by lobbying Congress, which has the power to block sales of arms it conceives as dangerous to Israel’s military advantage.

Several weeks ago it was reported that Israel and the US were nearing a $3 billion deal that would see Israel buying 19 advanced F-35 warplanes that would give it a significant military advantage. The Wall Street Journal report said that the trigger for this deal was likely the US commitment to Israel not to provide the Saudis with advanced arms.

The F-35, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, is a far more sophisticated plane than the F-15. Lockheed Martin has promoted the F-35 as the centerpiece for 21st century global security while strengthening international political and industrial partnerships. The fighter plane combines advanced stealth with fighter speed and agility, fully fused sensor information, network-enabled operations and advanced sustainment. And, Lockheed Martin has said, it could start delivering the F-35 as early as 2015, around the same time the Saudis would begin to get new F-15s. Thus, the Saudis would get their advanced F-15s while Israel would be provided at the same time with a much more sophisticated F-35 and retain its military advantage.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak visited Washington a few weeks ago in order to discuss the Saudi deal with US officials. “There are considerations in Washington about moving forward with major deals with our neighbors and we want to make sure that we are in an understanding with the [Obama] administration,” said Barak during the visit. “We understand the American need, under the strategy of the administration, to kind of strengthen the moderate Arab countries facing the same threat from hegemonic Iran. But, at the same time, we have a tradition of understanding with following administrations to keep Israel's superiority in weapons' systems and munitions.”

Following Barak’s visit, Israeli officials said they felt more comfortable about how the F-15s sold to the Saudis would be equipped. US officials said that the F-15s in the package will be "very capable" aircrafts, while denying that the US made changes to the deal in order to appease Israel.