America has agreed to sell Saudi Arabia 84 of the latest model of the F-15 jet and dozens of Black Hawk helicopters. The deal also includes refurbishing many of the kingdom's older F-15s, the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday.
Israel is believed to have opposed the $30 billion deal. However, in a concession to Israel, the new F-15s, made by the Boeing Company, will not be equipped with the latest weapons and avionics systems available to the US military.
The last such major arms sale by the US to Saudi Arabia was in 1992, when the kingdom received 72 F-15s. On that occasion, Israel tried to block the $9bn deal by lobbying the US Congress, straining relations with the White House of George H W Bush.
The F-35's stealth technology, which allows it to evade radar detection and anti-aircraft missiles, comes with a hefty price tag of up to $150 million a plane -- a cost that Israel had been balking at.
But, according to the reports, the US has offered Israeli firms defence contracts worth $4bn to supply parts for the F-35 -- a deal some Israeli analysts believe is designed to buy Israel's silence over the Saudi deal and ensure it gets through the US Congress.
The aircraft is not expected to enter service until 2014. If Israel signs up for a single squadron of 20 F-35s, as expected in the next few weeks, it would be the first country outside the US to secure the jet. Israel has been given an option to buy 55 more.
Last year Israel had threatened to abandon negotiations over the F-35 and opt instead to buy the advanced F-15. Saudi Arabia's reported purchase of that jet appears to make such a scenario less likely.
The Obama administration has faced heavy lobbying from Israel to prevent the sale of the F-15s to Saudi Arabia.
"Today these planes are against Iran, tomorrow they might turn against us," Haaretz quoted an unnamed security official as saying last month.
Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister, told the Washington Post last month that the US administration was committed to making sure Israel was not left in an "inferior situation" and was "doing a lot to support Israel's qualitative military edge".
The Saudis have become one of the largest purchasers of US-made arms since they bought the first AWACS surveillance planes in the 1980s. According to a recent Congressional report, the Gulf kingdom spent $36 billion world-wide on arms in the seven years to 2008.
Today, Saudi Arabia has the third largest air force in the Middle East behind Israel and Iran. The Royal Saudi Air Force has 280 "combat capable" aircraft, according to data compiled by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, compared to Israel's 424 and Iran's 312.
The Wall Street Journal did not specify the model of F-15 being bought by Riyadh, but experts widely assumed it to be the upgraded Strike Eagle. The jet, designed for precision air-to-surface attacks, was the main one used by the US in destroying Iraq's radar and missile systems during the 2003 invasion.
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