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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Editorial: Congress Must Examine Impact of Saudi Arms Sale

A core element of American foreign policy is upholding Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME)—the ability of the Jewish state to counter and defeat any conventional military threat by itself, while sustaining minimal casualties and damages. To this end, America provides Israel with critical security assistance to help it deter and defend against any potential adversary.

Today, Israel’s QME is not only under pressure from Iran’s expansionist aims and nuclear ambitions, but by an ongoing, massive arms build-up among Arab states as well.

On the heels of the Obama administration’s 2016 announcement of significant military exports to Saudi Arabia, President Trump announced in May that the United States will sell it over $110 billion of arms. Such an enormous quantity of defense materiel sold to a country still technically at war with Israel—despite common interests in blocking Iran’s regional aggression—raises serious policy concerns, especially when it comes to the maintenance of Israel’s QME and a stable Middle East military balance.

As the Trump administration fulfills its legal obligation to submit these arms sale proposals to Capitol Hill for consideration, it is critical that Congress closely examine each component to ensure that the overall package not only strengthens America’s national security interests and economic growth, but also complies with U.S. law and does not undermine Israel’s QME.

The scale of the arms sale is unprecedented.

While many of the details are unknown, the sale comprises the largest arms deal in American history. Initially valued at $110 billion, overall transactions could total as much as $350 billion over the next decade. The deal includes many items previously announced during the Obama administration.

Troublingly, the sale dwarfs Israel’s own expected defense purchases from America over the same period, represented by the 10-year $38 billion in pledged U.S. security assistance to Israel beginning in 2019.  Saudi Arabia clearly intends to purchase significantly larger quantities than Israel of sophisticated U.S. systems such as the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile interceptor and advanced naval vessels and vast quantities of precision munitions.

The arms sale will escalate today’s Middle East arms race.

Without question, Iran remains the greatest threat to Israel—and the region—using its renewed access to over $100 billion in frozen assets following the nuclear deal to help fuel its own military buildup and support for regional destabilization. As a result, the Middle East is currently witnessing a conventional arms race. This will only escalate once United Nations restrictions on Iranian arms imports lift in 2021, allowing Iran to purchase advanced, modern weaponry from Russia and China.

The arms sale could harm Israel’s QME.

Installation of the THAAD batteries slated for sale to Saudi Arabia may negatively impact Israel’s QME. Of note, the advanced missile defense system is comparable to Israel’s Arrow system. Although THAAD is intended to help Saudi Arabia defend against ballistic missiles—it would also improve the kingdom’s ability to track Israeli F-15 and F-16 fighters, the workhorses of the Israeli Air Force. The stealthy F-35 fighter jet, of which five have been delivered to Israel to date, can help mitigate this operational challenge, but a future deployment of THAAD in the Arabian Peninsula increases the uncertainty of Israel’s long-term QME. Furthermore, the sale makes it even more essential that Israel remains the sole foreign operator of the F-35 in the region for the foreseeable future.

To address these concerns, Congress must closely scrutinize the deal.

In 2008, Congress wrote America’s long-standing commitment to Israel’s QME into law and required the president to continually assess whether it is being maintained. To this end, Congress must demand concrete assurances from the Trump administration that the sale will not undermine the IDF’s qualitative advantage.

Specifically, Congress must:

  • Ensure that Saudi capabilities are oriented toward the threats that Iran and other radical regimes pose to the Kingdom;

  • Ensure the administration closely consults with Israel on the sale and takes into account its concerns—including the provision of equipment or countermeasures necessary for Israel to maintain its QME;

  • Examine what impact the sheer quantity of arms being sold to Saudi Arabia will have on Israel’s QME; and

  • Create a mechanism to memorialize any American or Saudi assurances associated with the sale and ensure they are adhered to.

Tags: Near East Report Near-East-Report