Sales of F-16s, other fighter jets to gulf allies are delayed

Lockheed Martin continues to build F-16 fighter jets for foreign sales at its Fort Worth plant.
Lockheed Martin continues to build F-16 fighter jets for foreign sales at its Fort Worth plant.

While the Obama administration has promised new arms sales to bolster Sunni allies in the Persian Gulf region against their Shiite rival, Iran, the White House has yet to seek congressional approval for fighter jets requested by Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain as long ago as 2013.

The stalled aircraft sales, including F-16s built by Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, could be valued at $12 billion — and $20 billion if spare parts, logistical support and munitions are included, according to Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst for the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va.

“We ask our partners to play an increased role in the fight against” the Islamic State militant group “and then we sit on their request for U.S. weapons, sometimes for years,” Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, who is vice chairwoman of the House Defense appropriations subcommittee and chairwoman of the State appropriations panel, wrote via e-mail.

It’s not unusual under requirements of the Arms Export Control Act and U.S. policy on the transfer of conventional arms for sales to require extensive interagency consideration, said an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door process.

The administration is required by law to determine that sales to Middle East nations other than Israel won’t adversely affect Israel’s qualitative military edge — a primary U.S. policy goal, the official said. The State and Defense departments are responsible for making this determination, the official said.

Qatar submitted a letter of request in July 2013 for as many as 36 F-15s made by Boeing. Kuwait submitted a letter in April 2015 for 28 of the company’s F/A-18s. Bahrain submitted a more recent request for 17 F-16s.

President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Ash Carter have promised to strengthen the defenses of gulf allies that are unhappy about the nuclear deal that eased sanctions against Iran. But the administration also has its differences with the Sunni-ruled nations.

The delay in approving jet sales has drawn ire from U.S. lawmakers who see it as a symbol of a broken foreign military sales system that fails to respond to the needs of close allies such as Qatar. The country not only hosts the U.S.’s top command center for planning and executing airstrikes against the Islamic State but is also providing a base for U.S. warplanes such as the B-52 bomber.

It “drives countries to purchase weapons from Russia and China and risks U.S. jobs,” Granger said.

Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee; Jack Reed, the panel’s top Democrat; and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, where Boeing builds F/A-18s and F-15s, wrote to Obama in April to urge action on the fighter sales. The lawmakers, who haven’t received a response, according to aides, were joined by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker.