WASHINGTON, April 19, 2013 – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s first official trip to the Middle East will underscore U.S. security relationships there and finalize agreements on an unprecedented release of military capabilities to Israel and other partner countries, senior defense officials said today.
Tomorrow, the secretary begins a six-day trip that includes meetings with counterparts and officials in Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
“I would characterize this trip as not just a series of courtesy calls, but as a series of security calls on important allies and partners,” a senior defense official, speaking on background, told Pentagon reporters today.
Hagel’s goal, the official added, “is to deepen and strengthen his relationships with all of these countries.”
“I would note that in the case of Israel, he has been to Israel six times in the past and looks forward to expressing once again in that country his personal commitment to our alliance and to Israel’s security,” the official added.
The range of security issues to be discussed will all country officials includes the situations in Syria, Iran, the Sinai Peninsula and others, he said, along with the historic arms deal that involves Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The release of U.S. military capabilities is the culmination of an effort that President Barack Obama asked former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta to undertake late last year, another senior defense official said.
Given many shared threats in the region, including Iran, Syria, terrorism, border issues and other challenges, the president wanted Panetta “to look at ways not just to protect Israel’s qualitative military edge, which is a key principle of American policy, but to increase the capabilities of Israel in a significant and meaningful way and in doing so increase the capabilities of key partner nations,” he added.
The series of sensitive bilateral negotiations took place over the past year and resulted in agreements, reached also through consultations with Congress, to approve requests by Israel for advanced radar for Israeli jet fighters, antiradiation missiles, KC-135 refueling tankers, and a to-be-determined number of V-22 Ospreys, the official said, a capability that the United States has never sold to any other country.
The United States is making these capabilities available for Israeli purchase, the official said, adding that U.S. funding for Israel’s security needs has been unprecedented, even in an austere budget environment.
“This year the United States provided $3.1 billion in foreign military financing to Israel, the highest the United States has ever provided,” he said. In addition, the United States provides about $300 million in missile defense to Israel, the official noted.
Elsewhere in the region, in 2010 Saudi Arabia agreed to purchase 84 F-15 tactical fighters in a deal worth $29.4 billion, the official said, and the first F-15s have rolled off the line in St. Louis and are undergoing flight testing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.
During Hagel’s trip, the UAE is expected to move forward with the purchase of 25 F-16 Block 60 Desert Falcon fighters manufactured by Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, Texas. The expected value of the sale is $425 billion, the official said.
“As part of these sales,” he added, “the United States is agreeing to deploy standoff weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.” Such smart weapons can navigate to their targets and are more precise and can be fired at further distances.
“This is more advanced weaponry than we’ve sold before,” the official said. “A key part of the agreement is that we believe, and the Israelis believe, that [providing] these capabilities in no way diminishes Israel’s qualitative military edge, but are consistent with [the need to] commonly address threats in the region.”
The United States will jointly train with the Emirati and Saudi pilots, as has been the case for other sales of military aircraft, he noted.
“There will be enhanced end-use monitoring consistent with what we provide with sensitive technology to our other allies and partners around the region,” the official said, “and there will be consultations prior to any of the weapons’ deployment.”
None of the military sales signals a change in U.S. policy toward Iran or any other country, the official said.
The secretary’s trip is an important one that follows up on Obama’s trip in March to Israel and Jordan, and discussions the president had there, another senior defense official said. During the secretary’s trip, the official said, “in each country we will be seeking to strengthen and reinforce the relationships.”
Syria will be at the top of the agenda at all stops, he added, and Iran clearly will be an issue Hagel will be interested in hearing about from his counterparts.
Egypt will be a very important stop both to reaffirm the importance of the Egyptian-U.S. defense relationship, discuss many important issues that Pentagon officials have been working on with Egypt for about two years, and security issues, the official observed, but also Egypt’s internal situation.
Hagel will have a chance to speak directly with Egyptian officials about “the difficult times they’re in,” the official said, referring to the transitional period that has followed the revolution that began Jan. 25, 2011.
In Jordan, the secretary will have an opportunity to meet with senior Jordanian defense officials about the situation in Syria and what the Defense Department can do to help the Jordanians, the official said.