WASHINGTON — The decision by the Obama administration to stop delivery of several F-16s to Egypt, confirmed Thursday after word leaked that the fighters would be held at Lockheed Martin’s plant, would delay completion of a deal that is about two-thirds completed as the US debates how to support a military regime that overthrew President Mohammed Morsi earlier this month.
Of the 20 aircraft ordered in 2010 at a cost of $213 million, roughly a dozen have already been delivered — 14 according to one source — and the remaining half dozen are nearing completion, sources said. The deal predates the ouster of one-time ruler Hosni Mubarak; Congress originally was notified of a deal for upwards of 24 aircraft in 2009.
But the optics of delivering aircraft to a military that has recently removed a democratically elected president in Morsi has complicated matters. The administration has been careful to avoid describing the government transition as a coup, largely trapped by a law that requires the cessation of foreign military aid in such an event. Egypt receives roughly $1.3 billion in Foreign Military Financing, a key lever of influence for the US with the military regime.
Because so many of the fighters have already been delivered, the decision is largely symbolic, part of an ongoing calibration of how to convince the Egyptian military to return the country to democracy, said Phil Finnegan, an analyst with the Teal Group.
“The US is walking a tightrope with this,” Finnegan said. “The US doesn’t want to encourage any sort of resumption of an authoritarian regime. It’s a carrot and stick. We want a close relationship, but you have to move convincingly towards elections.”
While the F-16s are being delayed, administration officials have been careful to caution that the move does not mean military aid will be stopped.
“This was a very specific decision made at this specific time about this specific case,” said Jennifer Psaki, spokeswoman for the State Department. “So I would caution you to read further into it.”
Without using the word “coup,” Psaki acknowledged that the administration is considering its obligations in regards to aid.
“We do not believe that it would be in the best interests of the United States to immediately change all of our assistance to Egypt,” she said. “We are reviewing our obligations under the law and are consulting with Congress about the way forward. Given the current situation in Egypt, we do not believe it is appropriate to move forward with the delivery of F-16s at this time.”
For Lockheed Martin, the contractor producing the aircraft, the decision has little impact. Since the sale was routed through the foreign military sales process, a technique that means the US government procures products and then in turn sells the equipment to overseas allies, the contractor will continue to produce the planes and will get paid regardless.
Asked about the delay, Lockheed issued a statement directing questions to the administration.
“This is an FMS program between the U.S. Government and the Government of Egypt,” the statement said. “As such, any questions should be referred to the USG.”
Once the remaining half dozen aircraft are built they’ll likely be stuck at Lockheed’s Fort Worth, Texas, production line until delivery resumes. No date has been announced, but the aircraft are likely to remain in limbo until elections are held, experts said.
At that point, the appearance of supporting a military regime that supplanted a democratically elected one would be eliminated.
That the military regime leans toward the secular encourages continued efforts to aid its leaders, despite the optics, Finnegan said.
“On the one hand, we don’t want to deal with people who overthrow democracy,” he said. “On the other hand, the people who overthrew the government are more closely aligned with our values.”