Trump clears F-16 sale to Bahrain, drops human rights conditions

Lockheed Martin builds the F-16 fighter jet in Fort Worth, but plans to shift production to Greenville, S.C.
Lockheed Martin builds the F-16 fighter jet in Fort Worth, but plans to shift production to Greenville, S.C.

The State Department told Congress it backs the sale of 19 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters to Bahrain without preconditions on improved human rights previously demanded by the Obama administration, according to two people familiar with the proposal.

The request of support for the sale of up to $2.7 billion in jets doesn’t include a package to upgrade older F-16s, which officials said last year could bring the proposal to as much as $4 billion, according to the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Wednesday’s request triggers a roughly three-week informal notification period that will be followed by a formal, publicly released document that Congress has 30 days to approve.

Lockheed has been winding down production of the F-16 in Fort Worth as orders wane and resources are shifted to the growing F-35 program. The last F-16 is expected to roll off the Fort Worth assembly line in September and Lockheed announced last week that it would begin shifting its F-16 production line from Fort Worth to Greenville, S.C., at the end of the year.

A Lockheed official in Fort Worth declined to discuss the possible Bahrain sale.

“The Foreign Military Sales process is a function of U.S. Government policy,” said John Losinger, a spokesman for the F-16 program in Fort Worth. “It would be inappropriate for us to comment on behalf of the U.S. Government.”

But Losinger said that any subsequent F-16 orders will be produced in South Carolina.

The decision on Bahrain highlights the Trump administration’s outreach to traditional Gulf Arab allies, which the White House sees as a bulwark against Iranian expansion and a partner in the fight against terrorism.

The notice also came the same day that the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, Army General Joseph Votel, told a House committee that foreign arms sales to allies shouldn’t be burdened with preconditions tied to human rights because they could damage military-to-military ties. Votel, who heads the U.S. Central Command, singled out Bahrain as an example.

“While we have historically enjoyed a strong [military] relationship with our Bahraini counterparts, the slow progress on key FMS cases, specifically additional F-16 aircraft and upgrades to Bahrain’s existing F-16 fleet, due to concerns of potential human rights abuses in the country, continues to strain our relationship,” Votel said in prepared testimony to the House Armed Services Committee. FMS refers to the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Sales program.

The Obama administration told Congress in September it wouldn’t complete approval of the sale until Bahrain demonstrated progress on human rights issues after its Sunni-dominated government suppressed nonviolent opposition and dissolved the main opposition group of the country’s Shiite majority.

In its 2016 human rights report, issued after Trump took office, the State Department cited restrictions on free expression, “lack of judicial accountability for security officers” accused of human rights violations, and limitations on “citizens’ ability to choose their government peacefully” as among the nation’s most serious human rights problems.

Staff writer Max B. Baker contributed to this report.