WASHINGTON — In its biggest arms deal ever, the United States announced it will sell up to 60 billion dollars worth of warplanes, helicopters and other weapons to Saudi Arabia, partly to help it counter Iran.
The plan allows for the sale of 84 F-15 fighter jets, 70 Apache attack helicopters, 72 tactical Black Hawk helicopters and 36 light helicopters, assistant secretary for political-military affairs Andrew Shapiro said.
The sale, which also includes the upgrade of 70 used F-15s, is "not to exceed 60 billion" dollars, Shapiro told reporters as President Barack Obama's administration notified Congress of its plans to make the deal.
Congress has the authority to amend or delay the agreement, according to Shapiro, who said he did not expect Israeli opposition to the sale.
The delivery of the weapons to oil-rich Saudi Arabia would be spread over 15 to 20 years.
"It will send a strong message to countries in the region that we are committed to support the security of our key partners and allies in the Arabian Gulf and broader Middle East," Shapiro said.
Though he said the deal is "not solely about Iran," Shapiro admitted it is partly intended to help Saudi Arabia counter the perceived threat from the non-Arab Islamic republic across the Gulf.
US defense officials said the deal had been in the works for months with the Saudis, who have grown increasingly anxious about Iran's missile arsenal.
A senior defense official told reporters last month that "if you look at the kingdom, the major threat that they face in the region emanates from Iran."
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the arms package "gives them a whole host of defensive capabilities to defend the kingdom and deterrence capabilities."
The defense package also includes thousands of laser-guided smart bombs, including JDAMS, as well as Hellfire and Sidewinder missiles.
In a statement emailed to AFP, Boeing said it expect to earn "approximately 24 billion dollars" over the lifetime of the program, with a yearly earning of 4.6 billion dollars.
Some 77,000 Boeing employees and contractors are to work on the project.
"We look forward to working with the US government and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on these programs, which are designed to strengthen security in the region," it added.
Last month, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said major arms deals to countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel were in the US "national interest" as Washington seeks to keep the region stable and counter potential threats from Iran.
Alexander Vershbow, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, said the deal cemented the decades-old US alliance with Saudi Arabia.
"We welcome Saudi Arabia's decision to continue to strategically align itself with the United States," Vershbow told reporters.
"If approved, this program will be implemented over 15 to 20 years, which means that our defense bond with the Saudis will only continue to grow deeper and stronger," he added.
The two countries have enjoyed a strong strategic alliance -- highlighted by Saudi Arabia serving as the staging area for the 1991 US-led war to evict Iraqi troops from Kuwait -- but ties suffered over Arab-Israeli diplomacy and the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Vershbow said the helicopters would help Riyadh deal with border security, including threats like those which prompted a three-month Saudi assault on Shiite rebels along the Yemeni border in late 2009 and early 2010.
The better-armed Saudi forces lost at least 109 men in guerrilla-type fighting in the craggy border mountains, and the conflict went on many weeks longer than they expected.
"There are potential roles for the helicopters that are going to the Saudi land forces in scenarios that we saw in the conflict with the Huthi rebels who did cross-border operations," Vershbow said.
Arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the past have triggered concerns from Israel and its supporters in the United States, but US officials said they did not expect opposition.
"Our assessment is that this (sale) would not diminish Israel's qualitative military edge, and therefore we felt comfortable in going forward with the sale," Shapiro said.
Vershbow said US officials consulted Israel as the deal took shape.
"There have been high-level discussions, as well as working-level discussions. And I think it's fair to say that, based on what we've heard at the high levels, Israel does not object to this sale," he said.
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