U.S. fighter sales to Gulf allies stalled for up to 3 years

In a 2011 photo, an F-35 Lightning II is shown during the test phase demonstrating the short take-off and vertical landing capability.  CREDIT: U.S. Navy)

While the Obama administration has promised new arms sales to bolster Sunni Gulf allies against their Shiite rival Iran, the White House has yet to seek congressional approval for fighter jets requested by Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain as long ago as 2013.

The stalled aircraft sales could be valued at as much as $12 billion — and $20 billion if spare parts, logistical support and munitions are included, according to Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst for the Teal Group in suburban Washington, D.C.

“We ask our partners to play an increased role in the fight against” Islamic State “and then we sit on their request for U.S. weapons, sometimes for years,” Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, vice chairman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee and chairman of the State appropriations panel, said in an email.

It’s not unusual under requirements of the Arms Export Control Act and U.S. policy on the transfer of conventional arms for sale to require extensive interagency consideration, according to an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door process.

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The administration is required by law to determine that sales to Middle East nations other than Israel won’t adversely affect that nation’s qualitative military edge — a primary U.S. policy goal, the official said. The State and Defense departments are responsible for making this determination, the official said.

Qatar submitted a letter of request in July 2013 for as many as 36 F-15s made by Boeing Co. Kuwait submitted a letter in April 2015 for 28 of the company’s F/A-18s. Bahrain submitted a more recent request for 17 F-16s built by Lockheed Martin Corp.

President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Ash Carter have promised to strengthen the defenses of Gulf allies unhappy that he forged the nuclear deal that eased sanctions against Iran. But the administration also has its differences with the Sunni-ruled nations.

The holdup for Qatar’s planes may stem from its harsh criticism of Israel and support for Hamas as well as concern Qatar isn’t doing enough to curb money laundering and private financing of hard-line Islamic groups, Ken Katzman, Middle East analyst for the Congressional Research Service, said in an e-mail. He said U.S. officials also are vexed that Qatar stopped its airstrikes against Islamic State after doing only a few in 2014.

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Qatar’s request to buy a large number of the most sensitive and capable planes that the U.S. produces is “a recipe for concern by the U.S. and Israel,” Aboulafia said in an e-mail. “But the Kuwait delay is completely baffling. It’s a low-risk customer asking for a relatively low-risk product,” he said.

Qatar’s embassy in Washington said in a statement that the nation “is deeply appreciative” of the strong congressional support for the F-15 sale and “we believe that it will be completed this year. The F-15s will improve and expand our capabilities to support U.S.-led efforts to defeat terrorism and extremism.”

The delay in approving jet sales has drawn ire from U.S. lawmakers who see it as a symbol of a broken foreign military sales system that fails to respond to the needs of close allies such as Qatar. The country not only hosts the U.S.’s top command center for planning and executing air strikes against Islamic State but is also providing a base for U.S. warplanes such as the B-52 bomber.

It “drives countries to purchase weapons from Russia and China and risks U.S. jobs,” said Granger, whose Texas district includes Fort Worth, where Lockheed builds the F-16.

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John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jack Reed, the panel’s top Democrat, and Claire McCaskill from Missouri, where Boeing builds F/A-18s and F-15s, wrote Obama in April to urge action on the fighter sales. The lawmakers, who haven’t received a response, according to aides, were jointed by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker.

Since the U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council Summit at Camp David, Maryland, in May 2015, the Obama administration has notified Congress of more than $20 billion in defense sales to Gulf nations, said the administration official.

In 2014, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel completed an $11 billion arms agreement with Qatar for AH-64 Apache helicopters, Patriot missile defense systems and Javelin antitank weapons.

Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at an appropriations hearing in February that Kuwaiti officials were “incredibly frustrated” with the delay in processing their F/A-18 request.

“Our presence in Kuwait has been critical to prosecute the current fight against” the Islamic State so “we should look for ways to expedite the delivery of equipment because they have and they will go elsewhere,” he said in response to a question from Granger.

If Mideast nations buy Chinese drones “or Chinese aircraft or missiles or those kinds of things, it makes it incredibly difficult for us then to put coalitions together in a circumstance like we find ourselves right now,” Dunford said.

–With assistance from Nafeesa Syeed