WASHINGTON — The US is set to approve long-pending fighter jet sales to Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait now that a landmark aid deal with Israel has gone through, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said Wednesday.
"I'm glad they consummated [the aid deal], and I'm glad that the follow on is we're completing sales to Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. "To act like there's no connection — let's face it, it's like the hostages left when the money arrived."
The question of whether the jet sales — requests from Qatar for 72 F-15E Strike Eagles and Kuwait for 28 F/A-18E/F aircraft — have been held up to maintain Israel's legally mandated qualitative military edge has been a longstanding one. Those two nations first requested those potential sales more than two years ago.
It has been a delicate dance for Israel, with officials telling Defense News they had raised the issue with the White House but avoided public comments in order not to be seen as obstructionist for a series of jets that could have huge economic impact for the US defense industry. (Boeing is banking on those sales to help keep its St. Louis, Missouri, production line going.) Bahrain is also reportedly in the market for up to 18 F-16 Fighting Falcons, made by Lockheed Martin.
On Thursday, former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon came the closest to acknowledging that the jet sales to the Gulf nations were tied to the signing of the memorandum of understanding.
"You know, Israel in certain cases has reservations about these arms deals," Ya’alon said in response to a question from Defense News. "Those reservations should be coordinated with Israel in order to keep that qualitative military edge, and in this case, there were Israeli concerns."
However, Sen. Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Senate State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Thursday that Israel did not discuss the jet sales with him when US lawmakers visited recently.
"I didn’t talk to them about this," said Graham, R-S.C. "I’m okay with the sales; I think we need to empower our Arab allies. We call on them to do more. I don’t think it changes the situation with Israel. I don’t think it changes the qualitative superiority that we hope to achieve."
The chief of the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency, Vice Adm. Joseph Rixey, in a public appearance on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, declined to answer a question about the implications of the MOU or the jet sales.
"I’m really happy that the MOU was signed, and I’m really looking forward to working with the Israelis on their procurement of $3.8 billion annually, and that’s all I’m going to say," Rixey said. "Good try."
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.
Joe Gould is the Congress and industry reporter at Defense News, covering defense budget and policy matters on Capitol Hill as well as industry news.