Hagel seeks to reassure gulf states as interest in F-35 rises
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel toured the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf last week reassuring them the United States is not abandoning them while seeking a rapprochement with Iran, their main rival, and one way to do that is make available advanced weapons systems that have long been withheld.
This has led to speculation, prevalent during the Dubai Air Show in October, that Washington may give Saudi Arabia and its partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council alliance access to Lockheed Martin's stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most advanced combat jet in the world, earlier than is usual for such new weapons.
Since Saudi Arabia and Israel now find themselves on the same side against Iran because of fears of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, those restrictions may now be eased.
Defense analysts observed during the air show that the multi-role F-35, which Israel has already ordered, appears to be high on the wish-list of strategic planners in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the two main military powers within the six-member GCC.
The other members are Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain.
In the past, the gulf states have been offered U.S. weapons platforms about five years after Israel. This was the time frame regarding Boeing's F-15 Eagle and Lockheed Martin's F-16 Fighting Falcon.
The F-35 JSF is designed to replace both these aircraft, along with Boeing's F/A-18 and other combat jets currently in service.
Israel expects to start taking delivery of the first 20 F-35s it has ordered in 2016, which would mean the Saudis would have to wait until around 2020.
That may not fit in with Saudi strategic planning.
As things stand now in the gulf, the Saudi and Emirates air forces, armed with long-range ground attack and air-to-air missiles, should be able to counter Iran's air strength that consists mainly of aging 1970s-era U.S. and French fighter aircraft mixed with a few high-performance MiG-29s and Sukhoi Su-25s.
But the F-35, a radar-evading fifth generation fighter that will eventually be the primary aircraft of the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps., would give the gulf's Arab states an unbeatable edge in a regional scrap.
There's another reason why the Americans could decide to offer the Saudis and their allies the F-35, and all the advanced weapons and electronic systems that go with it.
The U.S. defense sector now depends, more than ever, on export sales because of major defense budget cutbacks, just as its European competitors also do. And the F-35 is the Americans' edge.
If Washington doesn't sell such weaponry to the gulf states, the British and the French will seek to fill the gap.
There are signs the U.S. restrictions are already being phased out.
In October, the Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified the U.S. Congress of two sales to the GCC's Big Two that point to a distinct shift in policy.
The Saudi package, worth an estimated $6.8 billion, includes 650 Boeing AGH-84H standoff land attack missiles-expanded response, or SLAM-ERs, which are essentially cruise missiles. These have never been offered to Arab states in the gulf before.
The Emirates deal, worth around $4 billion, includes 300 SLAM-ERs. Both deals also contain Raytheon AGM-154C joint standoff weapons and Boeing GBU-39/B small diameter bombs.
Hagel opened the door to the sale of more advanced U.S. weapons systems during his gulf tour to convince longtime U.S. allies of Washington's strategic commitment to them despite the bid to achieve rapprochement with Iran that could eliminate a major regional security problem.
He said in Bahrain the United States would place "even more emphasis on building the capacity of our partners in order to complement our strong military presence in the region."
He also emphasized that the GCC states, which have singularly failed to develop a unified defense strategy despite years of American pressure, should streamline their military procurement programs.
Hagel proposed the GCC should acquire weapons systems collectively, "including items for ballistic missile defense, maritime security and counter-terrorism."
It's questionable whether such entreaties will work, especially in the current climate of distrust.
Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi intelligence chief and a key figure in the Saudi involvement in Syria's civil war, warned in October of a potential "major shift" in relations with the United States.