TEL AVIV and DUBAI — Israel’s opposition to Qatar buying F-15SE Silent Eagles could mark the end of Boeing’s venerable F-15 production line in Missouri unless Washington acts against its closest regional ally’s wishes or agrees to billions in more aid, allowing Israel to place its own new orders.
The Israeli Air Force has expressed interest in two additional squadrons of F-15Is equipped with AESA radars, a package estimated at some $10 billion.
But Israel’s ability to sign on to new Boeing jets – and thus prolong the line for another four years – depends on the ultimate size of a new US aid package that Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said should be concluded by the two countries “in the coming weeks.”
If the ultimate top line of the package comes in around $40 billion, Israeli sources say they will have to limit fighter procurement to additional squadrons of F-35s. But if that number is closer to $50 billion over a 10-year period starting in 2018, Israel will be able to accommodate new F-15I buys, Israeli military and civilian sources said.
Israeli angst over the potential US deal with Qatar, which is looking to build its fleet up to 72 fighters, has resulted in a two-year delay that has already driven Doha to embrace the French Rafale as an alternative to a portion of the fighters initially planned for purchase from the US.
And if Boeing does not secure firm orders in the coming months, it will begin the process of shutting down its 40-year-old F-15 production line in St. Louis, Missouri, by early summer, government and industry sources say.
“We don’t want to be blamed for closing down the line, but at the same time, our American friends understand that we have serious problems with Qatar,” an Israeli government source told Defense News.
In interviews granted on condition of anonymity, that official and a recently retired Israeli cabinet member said Israel’s opposition stems from Qatar’s support for extreme Sunni Islamic organizations. They also criticized Doha-based al Jazeera Arabic television network for “inciting extremists to violence” against Israel.
“Why do we object to Qatar? Because Qatar directly helps Hamas and has an ideology that fuels extremists like the Muslim Brotherhood,” the former Israeli cabinet official said.
The former official said he did not know where things now stood with Washington, but noted that before he left office more than a year ago, the assumption was that Israel would try to prevail on its US partners to reject the sale to Qatar.
Both acknowledged that Israel has also registered concern – but not opposition – about selling F/A-18s to Kuwait.
That potential 40-aircraft package has also been delayed by nearly two years and has driven Kuwait to opt for a European alternative – in this case, 28 Eurofighter Typhoons – as a gap-filler pending approval from Washington.
The estimated $8.9 billion Eurofighter deal has been blocked by the Kuwaiti Audit Bureau over discrepancies in the presented contract, according to Gulf sources.
“There’s a difference between concern, which we have with regard to Kuwait and most Gulf states, and opposition,” an Israeli general officer said in reference to Qatar.
“We’re concerned about the quality and huge quantity of frontline fighters that are being introduced in this region. We’re concerned about the effect all these capabilities will have on our qualitative military edge (QME),” he said.
Despite the thaw in hostilities between Israel and Sunni Gulf states due to their shared threat from Shiite Iran, Israel continues to count on Washington’s longstanding US policy – codified into US law – to preserve its QME against any combination of regional threats.
Therefore, despite what an Israeli Foreign Ministry official cited as a “convergence of interests” between Israel and most Gulf states, Israel as a matter of policy retains its “QME-driven concerns” regarding top-shelf regional arms sales.
“As a policy, we cannot ignore the tremendous amount of sophisticated military hardware that is flowing into a region where instability is rife and regimes can change,” he said.
He noted, however, that only with regard to Qatar do such concerns cross over to objection.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a mid-February meeting with American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, spoke about the closer, albeit still discreet ties that Israel is cultivating with Arabian Gulf states.
“Major Arab countries are changing their view of Israel … they don’t see Israel anymore as an enemy, but as an ally, especially in the battle against militant Islam,” Netanyahu said.
Abdullah al-Shayji, Kuwait University professor of political science and lecturer at Kuwait’s Mubarak Al-Abdullah Joint Staff Command College, said US delays are creating serious trust issues with the American administration.
"There is a sinking feeling that we have been sold out to the Iranians and also this is becoming a double whammy as the distrust is increasing between Gulf leaders and the US. I hope that the Americans will wise up so as to raise this increasing trust deficit that has been here over the past two years," he said.
Al-Shayji said US procrastination over fighter approvals to Kuwait and Qatar “is proving that [President Barack] Obama's statements during the Camp David meetings are not coming along."
"The American administration has to live up to its word and be pushing the deal instead of blocking it; this is the first time that we see the administration holding back a deal while Congress is pushing for it," he said.
Asked how well the US is balancing Israel's qualitative military edge, and graver concerns, amid unprecedented US arms transfers to some of its neighbors, a senior US official said the military-to-military relationship is "spectacular."
"Our work with [Israel] to maintain that QME and other things continues daily, and we help them to understand and quantify and categorize their concerns, and they pass it up through the political chains [of command] to work those," said Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, commander of U.S. European Command, which oversees US military relations with Israel. "We are dedicated to maintaining their qualitative military edge."
Three US senators have said they were vexed by White House delays in approving proposed fighter packages to Qatar and Kuwait.
Senate Armed Services (SASC) Chairman John McCain has criticized the White House over the delays, but said he sympathized with its balancing act as it seeks to safeguard Israel's military edge.
Still, he said, Middle Eastern chaos and Iran's emergence as a common foe has reordered the region, creating a "de facto alliance" between Israel and some Sunni Arab nations it once fought.
"You have seen a bit of a relaxation on the part of the Israelis on their objections to some of these capabilities being purchased by the Sunni Arab countries they would have objected to in the past,” said McCain, R-Ariz.
The delays point for a broader need to streamline the US' arms transfer process, particularly in light competition from Moscow and its recent deals with US allies there, according to McCain. He said visiting foreign defense ministers frequently vent frustration to him over stalled arms deals.
"These countries deserve a decision," McCain said. "If it’s no, it’s no. If it’s yes, it’s yes."
Similar views were expressed by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, who last month characterized the hold up as “rather unusual.”
“Personally, I’d like to see it move along,” Corker said.
And Sen. Claire McCaskill, a leading Democrat on the SASC from Missouri, home to Boeing’s US headquarters, said last month she was sure the fighter sales in question would eventually go through.
Another Gulf deal being held up in Washington – a package of up to 30 F-16 Block 61 aircraft to the UAE and upgrades to the Emirates’ existing F-16 Block 60 fleet – may also be due to Israel’s QME-driven concerns.
Former US Defense Secretary William Cohen, chief executive officer of the Cohen Group, told Defense News last year that sales to the region are being held back due to “bureaucratic inertia.”
According to Cohen, Gulf countries can be trusted to abide by end-use restrictions and to maintain control of US hardware and technology transfers.
He said that the case has to be made to policy makers that if they want to continue this relationship [with Arabian Gulf states], they need to realize that the UAE and Gulf partners can go to "the Russians, Chinese and other suppliers."
"We have to maintain this relationship and we have to work with them and see that they remain a valuable partner and ally," Cohen added.
US embassies for Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE did not respond to requests for comment. Boeing declined to comment, referring questions to the US government. The US Air Force also declined comment.
And when asked for official comment on Israeli opposition to the Qatari F-15 package and concern about other sales to the Gulf, a spokesman for Ya’alon said: “We prefer not to have any talks with media … concerning QME or the MoU [on US aid].”
Joe Gould, Aaron Mehta and Lara Seligman contributed from Washington