The Bush administration officially notified Congress Monday of its intention to sell sophisticated precision-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia. The action, coinciding with President Bush's visit to Saudi Arabia, is part of a broader U.S. effort to bolster Gulf allies in the face of a more assertive Iran. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.
The Bush administration has already briefed Congress on its arms sales plans for Saudi Arabia. Monday's announcement sets in motion a 30-day period in which the House and Senate can block the plan with a joint resolution - action that appears highly unlikely.
Under the proposed deal, worth more than $120 million, the United States would provide Saudi Arabia with 900 kits and associated equipment to convert conventional gravity bombs into laser-guided smart-bombs, known as JDAMs.
The weapons are a mainstay of the U.S. military arsenal and their accuracy would vastly enhance the capability of the Saudi Air Force, which has top-of-the-line U.S.-made fighter-bomber aircraft.
The sale is part of a broader $20-billion arms package for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states announced by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates last August on a mission to the Gulf, aimed at shoring up U.S. allies concerned about Iranian influence in the region.
Several elements of the broader package including sales of Patriot anti-missile systems to Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, and upgrades for Saudi Arabia's AWACS airborne command and control planes, have already gotten congressional assent. Officials here say they also expect the Saudi J-DAMS sale to proceed despite concerns expressed by some congressional supporters of Israel.
At the time the Gulf weapons sales package was announced last year, the Bush administration also committed to a 10-year, $30-billion arms package for Israel, representing a 25 per cent increase in annual U.S. arms aid to that country.
Briefing reporters, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the administration has assured Congress it would do nothing to upset Israel's military edge over potential enemies in the region.
"We've spent a lot of time assuring that we abide by our commitments to a qualitative military edge for Israel," said Sean McCormack. "This is something that President Reagan first talked about and it's been reiterated and reconfirmed by each successive president after that. We're committed to maintaining that qualitative military edge for Israel."
Israel itself has not protested the pending sale. Israeli officials have said they anticipate being provided with a new-generation U.S. smart bomb more capable than J-DAMS, which have been in service for more than a decade.
A spokesman for House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos, a prominent advocate for Israel in Congress, said he does not intend to push a resolution of disapproval.
However one House member, New York Democrat Anthony Weiner, said he would introduce such a measure and already has more than 30 co-sponsors.
Critics of the package have faulted Saudi Arabia's record in combating terrorism and advancing political reform. Under questioning here, Spokesman McCormack said the Saudi government has made "quantum leaps" in action against terrorist cells and financing in recent years and has begun the process of reform, though not necessarily at a pace that would please some critics.
Two-thirds majorities of the members in both houses would be required to block the sale and officials here say chances for that appear nil.