MR. TONER: Good afternoon. Welcome to the State Department. It’s our great pleasure to have in our briefing room today the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro as well as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Alexander Vershbow. Both are with us today to announce a major arms deal and to – or arms sale and to answer any of your questions. And with that, I’ll hand it over to you, Assistant Secretary.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHAPIRO: Thank you, everyone, for coming and we are here – Ambassador Vershbow and I are here to officially announce the Administration’s plan to sell to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia a significant defense package that will promote regional security and enhance the defensive capabilities of an important Gulf partner with whom we have had a longstanding and close security relationship. There have been a number of press reports since the summer anticipating this sale. And for those of you who tried to question us about it, you know that it is U.S. Government policy not to comment on any possible arms sales until formal congressional notification has taken place. Often for major arms sales such as this one, a lot of work has to be done before we can notify, including discussions within the U.S. Government, interagency bilateral discussions with the receiving government, not to mention pre-consultations with congressional staff and members.
That said, we are undertaking this sale because it supports our wider regional security goals in the Gulf by deepening our security relationship with a key partner with whom we’ve enjoyed a solid security relationship for nearly 70 years. Let me just take a couple of minutes to describe how this potential arms – we view this potential arms sale package as benefiting the United States and advancing U.S. national security. The Administration analyzed Saudi Arabia’s request for these new aircraft within the context of the U.S. Government’s conventional arms transfer policy, which outlines a criteria that includes the country’s legitimate security needs and broader security objectives.
In accordance with the Arms Export Control Act, the Secretary of State is responsible for providing continuous supervision and general direction of arms sales. This includes determining whether proposed arms sales or export of defense articles and services are authorized and ensuring that they best serve U.S. foreign policy. In practice, this responsibility falls to the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher and is enacted by the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.
The Bureau of Political-Military Affairs is the Department’s lead for arms sales request and has worked closely on this sale with counterparts at the Department of Defense who are responsible for implementing foreign military sales such as the proposed Saudi package. I’m happy to say that we have accomplished all the hard work necessary to complete this package and this interagency effort has been a top priority for both Secretary Gates and Secretary Clinton and reflects the strong cooperation between our departments to support our wider national security goals.
This morning the Defense Security Cooperation Agency transmitted to Congress four formal notifications. The most significant items in these potential FMS sales include 84 F-15 aircraft, 70 upgrades of existing Saudi F-15s to a more advanced configuration, 70 AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopters, 72 UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters, 36 AH-6i light attack helicopters, and 12 MD-530F light training helicopters.
We have hard copies of DSCA’s press release available describing in more detail the aircraft platforms and the accompanying weapons systems. DSCA plans to publish these releases on its website very shortly.
I do want to emphasize that the dollar value of these potential sales reflects only estimates. We have worked closely with the Saudi Government to identify their full requirements and believe the proposed packages, which include aircraft munitions, support, and training services are sufficient.
Given the defense requirements being pursued by Saudi Arabia, it may choose not to fully fund all four of these programs. The final amount of the sale may well be less than the not-to-exceed estimate provided by DSCA as it will ultimately depend on what the Saudi Government decides to purchase and on the outcome of contract negotiations with industry.
This proposed sale has tremendous significance from a strategic regional perspective. It will reinforce our longstanding security partnership with Saudi Arabia, as Ambassador Vershbow will briefly discuss after my comments.
It will send a strong message to countries in the region that we are committed to support the security of our key partners and allies in the Arabian Gulf and broader Middle East. And it will enhance Saudi Arabia’s ability to deter and defend against threats to its borders and to its oil infrastructure, which is critical to our economic interests.
At the same time, we took into account how this sale is appropriate from a regional political-military perspective and concluded it would not negatively impact Israel’s security interests or Israel’s qualitative military edge, QME.
I’ll now turn it over to Ambassador Vershbow, who will have more to say about the benefits of the sale and how it advances U.S. security interests.
AMBASSADOR VERSHBOW: Thanks very much, Andrew. It’s good to see you all. After many months of work, the Department of Defense is pleased to have the Saudi aviation package now moving forward in the Congress. As Andrew said, over the last 70 years, the United States and Saudi Arabia have worked closely to establish, maintain, and develop very strong bilateral defense ties. With that seven-decade period as background, DOD takes great pride in advancing our defense relations with the Saudis through this proposed sale. Secretary Gates was pleased to have played a direct role in his engagement with King Abdullah and other Saudi leaders in coming to agreement on the proposed configuration for the F-15SA.
Before taking your questions, I’d like to just make a few specific points about why this program is important to U.S.-Saudi defense relations. First of all, we welcome Saudi Arabia’s decision to continue to strategically align itself with the United States. If approved, this program will be implemented over 15 to 20 years, which means that our defense bond with the Saudis will only continue to grow deeper and stronger.
Second, we’re pleased that the Saudis look to the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Army for meeting their defense requirements. The U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army have excellent relationships in Saudi Arabia and we believe the capabilities being offered will provide Saudi Arabia with a strong defensive capability for generations to come.
As many of you know, for the past 20 years, the F-15 has been the cornerstone of the U.S. Air Force and Royal Saudi Air Force relationship. The procurement of the new F-15SA, which stands for Saudi Advanced aircraft, and the conversion of the Saudis’ existing F-15S fleet to a common configuration and the possible training contingent in the continental U.S. will provide sustained professional contacts as well as common training and support well into the 21st century.
As for the helicopters – the Apaches, Blackhawks, and Little Birds – we believe that these versatile platforms will be able to conduct a number of critical missions in Saudi Arabia that are essential for the Kingdom’s self-defense. We foresee these helicopters providing area security for Saudi military forces, protecting the borders, and defending critical energy infrastructure sites and installations.
Lastly, this sale will enable Saudi Arabia to be more interoperable with the United States and its partners in the region. By increasing our collective capabilities, not only will our partners be able to take on greater multilateral roles, but specifically the Department of Defense will be able to free up U.S. forces in the region, maximizing the effectiveness of our global force posture.
So with that, Andrew and I are ready to take --
QUESTION: Can I just --
MR. TONER: Matt.
QUESTION: Yeah, just – Andrew, you mentioned a couple times the specifics, but you didn’t – and then you were very cautionary about the not to exceed and you didn’t tell us how much it was.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHAPIRO: Well, I think that you can add up the totals. I believe it comes to not to exceed 60 billion.
QUESTION: Right, okay. Now, there’s another package in the works, correct, a naval package? Is that right?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHAPIRO: We are not notifying a naval package today.
QUESTION: I understand. But is there a naval package in the works? I’m not asking –
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHAPIRO: I’m not prepared to comment on anything that we’re not notifying today.
QUESTION: All right. And then the last one is: Who does Saudi Arabia need to defend itself against with these – with this hardware?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHAPIRO: Well, I think that they’ve got a number of threats in the region. We’ve worked together closely with them on counterterrorism. It’s a dangerous neighborhood, as you know, and we want to ensure that they have the tools that they need to be able to defend themselves against all manner of threats in the region.
QUESTION: So – well, you’re not saying that they’re going to – the Saudis expect to use F-15s against al-Qaida, are you?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHAPIRO: Well, I think that --
QUESTION: Or, actually, here – let’s just – let’s not beat around the bush. This is about Iran, right?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHAPIRO: It’s not – no, this is about support --
QUESTION: It’s not?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHAPIRO: It’s not solely about Iran. It’s about helping the Saudis with their legitimate security needs, and they have a number of legitimate security needs. Obviously --
QUESTION: Is that one of them?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHAPIRO: Sure. There’s – this is – they live in a dangerous neighborhood, and we are helping them preserve their – and protect their security in a dangerous neighborhood against legitimate security threats.
QUESTION: I’m intrigued by what you said about freeing up forces in the region. Which forces exactly? I mean, what does that mean exactly? How is this package going to help the United States free up forces? Are you expecting the Saudis to step in and do some of what you’ve been doing?
AMBASSADOR VERSHBOW: I think, again, you have to put this in a long-term perspective. This will ensure the continued modernization of the Saudi Air Force. In some ways, this is a kind of a reinvestment on their part. When the program for the F-15s is completed, they’ll have roughly the same aircraft but of greater capability. And I think that when one looks at future challenges, having allies throughout the Gulf region who are interoperable with U.S. forces who are capable, have trained together with our forces. It means that we have partners and allies we can look to in future contingencies. So it means we may have to station fewer forces on a continuing basis in the region.
But I think that’s speculative as to what exactly might play out in the future, but I think it’s important to see that a lot of our friends and allies in the region share a perception of the security risks that we face today. And I think this demonstrates the Saudis’ commitment to continuing to play their part in support of the common objectives of our two countries and their other GCC neighbors.
MR. TONER: Michel.
QUESTION: Yeah. Israel was opposing this deal. Have you made them any guarantees?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHAPIRO: Well, as I said before, as part of our process we assess whether we conduct an independent assessment of what the impact would be on Israel’s qualitative military edge. And our assessment is – is that this would not diminish Israel’s qualitative military edge, and therefore, we felt comfortable in going forward with the sale.
AMBASSADOR VERSHBOW: Just on the same question, I would say, without being able to address this in specifics, we have consulted with Israel as this sale has taken shape. And there have been high-level discussions as well as working-level discussions, and I think it’s fair to say that based on what we’ve heard at high levels, Israel does not object to this sale.
MR. TONER: Jill Dougherty.
QUESTION: Spinning off from that same idea, Mr. Shapiro, you said that you assessed the impact, potential impact of this. In the region in general, is there the possibility that this might spark a conventional arms race, increase the tension in that region rather than guaranteeing it?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHAPIRO: No, and that’s a very good question. And indeed, I made reference to our conventional arms transfer policy, and that’s one of the things that we look at, is we do not want our arms sales to be destabilizing. But we – in our view, this arms sale has the opposite impact by providing greater security capability for a key partner in the region, and that we think that it will enhance regional stability and security rather than diminish it.
MR. TONER: Lach.
QUESTION: Yeah. The helicopters, are they designed to help the Saudis deal with that threat they had on the border with Yemen? They had trouble putting down a rebellion there?
AMBASSADOR VERSHBOW: I think there’s – there are potential roles for the helicopters that are going to the Saudi land forces in scenarios that we saw in the conflict with the Houthi rebels who did cross-border operations. Some of the helicopters are going to the Saudi National Guard, others are going to the Royal Guard. So they’ll have different roles. But yes, border security is one possible role.
MR. TONER: In the back, (inaudible).
QUESTION: Two questions if I may. One is just a simple technical one. Why would the helicopters and similar sales split into three separate packages at the end? Is that because of different destinations or other reasons, since you’re selling similar hardware? And the more fundamental question is: At a time when Europe has embarked on big defense cuts, does the fact that the U.S. is involved in so many arms sales to autocratic Middle Eastern countries give you pause about where these arms may be in 10 or 20 or 30 years’ time?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHAPIRO: On the first question, I mean, there are various – the way DSCA constructs its packages conforms to its procedures and practices, which includes the fact that there will be different customers within Saudi Arabia for different of these arms sales. In terms of where these arms are going to be, I mean, it’s – I’m not sure I fully understand the question, but from my --
QUESTION: What – the nature of the Saudi regime in 20 or 30 years’ time, it’s such a – the biggest arms sale, I believe, in U.S. history to an autocratic country like Saudi Arabia, does that give you any pause?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHAPIRO: Well, as I said, when we conduct an arms sale, we go through an extensive analysis of what impact it’ll have on the region, its potential impact and its actual impact. And we’re comfortable that this sale will serve to enhance U.S. national security.
MR. TONER: Why don’t you go ahead?
QUESTION: Okay, thank you. Can you give any details about what sort of weapons packages will be on the new F-15s, whether it includes the standoff systems that Israel saw as its red line? Will those be on the planes?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHAPIRO: The full systems will be on the DSCA press release that’s going on the web and that which we are distributing. Again, all I’ll say is we don’t anticipate that there will be any – as Ambassador Vershbow said, we don’t anticipate objections from the Israelis, but – and at the same time, our own assessment and analysis, we conduct an independent assessment of the impact on Israel’s qualitative military edge, and in that independent assessment, we believe that this sale will not diminish Israel’s qualitative military edge.
MR. TONER: Just a couple more questions. Go ahead, Samir.
QUESTION: Mr. Shapiro, what was the purpose of your visit to Libya?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHAPIRO: It was designed to discuss regional security issues as well as potential demining efforts. And it is just one more step of continuing the communication and development relations with Libya.
QUESTION: Was there any discussion whatsoever in Libya about the possibility of eventual U.S. arms sales to Libya?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHAPIRO: I’m not going to go into the substance of the discussions, other than to say that I thought it was a productive visit that helped move the relationship forward.
MR. TONER: Nicole.
QUESTION: Do you expect any congressional opposition to this deal? And if so, have you been doing preliminary work on the Hill? Can you tell us about it?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHAPIRO: As I mentioned, as part of preparing a package for congressional notification, we do extensive pre-consultations with the oversight committees which oversee the Arms Export Control Act. And so we have been conducting, with staff and members of those oversight committees, extensive pre-consultations. I can’t speak – Congress is a big place and there is a lot of members, and there may be differing opinions about the sale. But we feel comfortable that we have done adequate pre-consultations with members of Congress that there will not be a barrier to completing this sale.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Dmitry in the back.
QUESTION: Thank you. I was wondering if I can ask both of you gentlemen to comment on the potential sale of Mistral ship by France to Russia. What’s your position on that now? You used to say that you wanted to consult France on that, and maybe you can say anything more on that?
AMBASSADOR VERSHBOW: I think that Secretary Gates commented on that sale when he visited Paris earlier this year. I think more with respect to – is the message that such sales send them about the military impact as such. I think – I’m personally not familiar with the final details of this deal and whether it’s actually been finalized, but I sort of – I think we may have to defer comment until we know more about the sale.
MR. TONER: Last question.
QUESTION: You --
MR. TONER: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Congress actually has pretty few working days, though, to consider this kind of thing. You’ve said you’ve got oversight committee – or you’ve been working with them, at least for consultation. Do you feel like you’ve got support across the Hill?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHAPIRO: And my – again, my belief is – is that our consultations have been adequate with oversight committees, members of leadership, staff and others, that we feel comfortable that Congress will not be a barrier to the completion of this sale.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: All right. Thank you all.