WASHINGTON and DUBAI — Two powerful US senators have begun raising questions over why US fighter jet deals with Qatar and Kuwait have been delayed for two years — and placing blame for the delays on the Obama White House.
Qatar’s request for the F-15E Strike Eagle and Kuwait’s request for the F-18E/F Super Hornet are two years old. According to a congressional source, the Defense Department and State Department both support the sales, while the White House has put on the brakes.
That belief was reinforced Jan. 20, when Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, a frequent critic of the Obama administration, questioned the delay at a time when America's Sunni allies are looking for reassurance while diplomatic relations are improving between the US and their chief rival in the region, Iran.
“I have no doubt that the Obama administration has pursued a new relationship with Iran because it believed doing so would diminish sectarian tensions in the region, but the reality is that the administration’s overtures to Iran have only exacerbated those tensions,” McCain, R-Ariz., said in a hearing.
“This dynamic has only grown worse because the administration has been so slow to offer support to those allies and partners, as we have recently seen with delayed fighter aircraft sales to Qatar and Kuwait.”
"It shouldn't happen," McCain later said of the delays, "and we're doing everything we can to expedite it."
That same day, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker attended a briefing on the matter and said he expected the White House to make a decision in the next month or two, then seek Congressional approval.
According to Corker, Qatar is seeking 73 jets, 36 in the first tranche, a buy that would take 42 months to be delivered.
"It's been open for two years, it's been rather unusual," Corker said. "Personally I'd like to see it move along."
A leading Democrat on the SASC Airland subcommittee, Sen. Claire McCaskill, said she was sure the fighter jet sales in question would go through. McCaskill hails from Missouri, home to Boeing’s US headquarters. Boeing would be the prime contractor for both orders, giving much needed work to the company’s St. Louis facility.
“I don’t think anybody is going to criticize anyone for being careful about who we sell weaponry to at this point — with the world such as it is, especially in that part of the world,” McCaskill told Defense News.
The scrutiny on these requests comes as Washington has stepped up arms sales to assuage its old allies wary of the warming relationship with Tehran. Since the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit at Camp David in May, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency has announced more than $20 billion in sales of bombs, aircraft, ships and other military equipment for Middle Eastern allies and Turkey.
While a boon to US American defense contractors in an era of shrinking Pentagon budgets, the transfers have been criticized as fueling a dangerous new arms race in the Middle East — just as the region descends into proxy wars, sectarian conflicts and battles against terrorist networks.
A spokesperson for the Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs declined to comment on the specific sales a matter of policy, but said arms transfers "fit into the overall US regional diplomatic strategy by improving interoperability with the US and Gulf Cooperation Council countries’ forces to meet their legitimate external defense needs."
It is not unusual, "and in fact quite appropriate ... for transfers of major US weapons systems to any partner nation to require significant interagency consideration and consultation, given the potentially significant long-term implications for US national security interests," he said.
The pressure from lawmakers could not come too soon for Kuwait’s Air Force, which is sticking to plans to purchase 28 Boeing F/A-18E/F fighter jets, a deal valued at around $3 billion. US industry executives and military officials have reportedly grown concerned about delays.
"The lengthy US bureaucratic process is really not serving anyone’s interests,” said Abdullah al-Shayji of Kuwait University, also a lecturer at the Mubarak Al-Abdullah Joint Staff Command College. “Kuwait is fighting in two wars, one in Yemen and another against ISIS. The State Department, Pentagon and the White House need to expedite these sales.”
Support for the F-18 remains strong in Kuwait, which is good news for Boeing.
"The Super Hornet is one of the best solutions for us," Abdullah al-Foudary, commander of the Kuwait Air Force, told Reuters Jan. 21. "We have the legacy F-18s that we have to find a solution for in 2030-2040."
"A debate is ongoing on what sort of air power will Kuwait use,” al-Shayji said. “This debate included the Eurofighter, Rafales and the F-18s, but the Air Force had clearly stated their preference for the F-18s and they at the end have the power in this matter."
The Air Force prefers the F-18 because adding in either Eurofighter or Rafale will “require the conversion of the systems used and will be more costly and time-consuming at a time when the oil prices are collapsing and may cause problems in the future if this deal is further delayed,” he added.
Aaron Mehta in Washington contributed to this report.