Another fight has just begun over U.S. weapons supplies to Saudi Arabia. The Bush Administration wishes to sell Riyadh 72 top-of-the-line F-15 fighters; a coalition of opponents argues against it. Both sides make good points and so it isn't obvious what's best for the American national interest. Happily, a combination of technical smarts and U.S. diplomacy can produce a way to reap the benefits of the sale while greatly diminishing the disadvantages.
Sale proponents point to the deal's use in supporting the real security concerns of an important ally and the fact that it will employ up to 40,000 people over five years. When Congress blocked the sale of F-15s to Saudi Arabia in 1986, Riyadh purchased British Tornados. At the same time, Americans lost the influence that suppliers acquire from the training and technical support that comes with the planes. Even more is at stake today, they argue. Only one advanced fighter aircraft assembly line might survive in the shrunken post-Cold War military aerospace market. Should Congress again nix a sale to the Saudis, the U.S. aerospace industry will suffer for years to come.
Israel was marginally disadvantaged because, sale proponents note, the United States would withdraw crucial technical support in a crisis if need be, something Europeans would not do. Moreover, the Tornado packs more of an offensive threat than the F-15, and is based closer to Israel than Saudi Arabia's U.S.-built fighters would be.
Opponents make two excellent counter-arguments concerning the security of Israel and American technology. Saudis F-15s could do great damage to Israel, obstructing Israeli mobilization in time of crisis and attacking both civilian and military targets-including the Dimona nuclear complex. Even if the 72 new F-15s never leave the ground, their mere presence in a country which presently has only about 150 high quality combat aircraft complicates Israeli planning. Israel would have to devote many aircraft to neutralizing that force, leaving fewer assets to deal with threats from Syria and elsewhere. In short, the sale undermines Israel's qualitative military edge which the U.S. government has sworn to uphold.
Further, were the planes to fall into the hands of fundamentalist Iran, Saddam's Iraq, or a revolutionary regime in Saudi Arabia, they could be used with considerable effect against a host of other American friends, including Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, and Turkey.
WHAT TO DO? Sell the F-15s with a technical condition attached: that there be a dual U.S.-Saudi trigger on the planes that gives Washington co-control over the planes' missions. This means pre-programming the F-15's computers with codes so that they require a daily entry for the plane's advanced systems to operate. Without codes, the F-15's navigational, avionics, and weapons systems won't work; a pilot could get airborne but he couldn't navigate or fire weapons.
Implanting codes is inexpensive and virtually foolproof; thousands of random numerical sequences can be loaded before delivery to Saudi Arabia-enough to last for a decade. An internal clock would, each day, prompt the computer to generate a new code; if the clock were tampered with, the computers would shut down. The code can be radioed daily from the United States to Saudi Arabia. Saudi pilots would insert the code much the same way you access an automated bank teller. The procedure would take seconds. No intrusive U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia would be required, and aircraft performance would not suffer one whit.
A dual trigger wouldn't solve all problems. In a crisis-rising rhetoric, Israeli and Iranian air forces both on alert-U.S. officials might hesitate to withhold codes, and so Saudi F-15s could theoretically attack Israel against American wishes. But a dual trigger reduces the chances of this happening and insures that, at worst, it could only happen once. Codes would also make these F-15s virtually useless in the hands of a Saddam Husayn or an expansionist Iranian regime.
Saudi leaders may resist a dual trigger as an infringement on their sovereignty, but there are several reasons to think their resistance might be overcome. First, if the Saudis are sincere in renouncing force against Israel, a dual trigger entails no real burden.
Second, a dual trigger actually enhances Saudi security by linking the United States to Saudi defenses on a daily basis. Managed properly, the coding arrangement could send the right message to Baghdad and Tehran without compromising Saudi pride. Middle Easterners often hear whispers better than shouts.
Finally, the House of Saud will probably accept the codes because it wants to do business with the United States. American weapons are better; and Washington alone can protect fundamental Saudi interests, as Operation Desert Storm so convincingly demonstrated. Indeed, the record shows that Saudis do bend to gain American security cooperation; Riyadh has previously agreed to base U.S.-built aircraft halfway down the Persian Gulf coast at Dhahran, and not at Tobuk near Israel. They may bend again.
Or they may not. But we'll never know unless we try and, unfortunately, when it comes to the Saudis, we rarely do try. Washington has enormous leverage in Riyadh these days; now is the time to use it.