241. Letter From Secretary of Defense McNamara to Minister of Defense and Aviation Prince Sultan1

Your Royal Highness:

I should like to express my appreciation to you for your very kind reception of my personal representative, Mr. John Hooper, and [Page 467]members of his staff during their recent visit to Saudi Arabia. Mr. Hooper has informed me of your meeting with him and the discussions regarding your air defense program. Furthermore, I am aware of the recent conversation which you had with our Ambassador about your desire to improve rapidly the defenses of Saudi Arabia along its border with Yemen and that you are concerned with the possibilities of both ground and air attack.

The President has been made fully aware of your deep concerns in this matter and has asked that I give part of the reply to you, offering suggestions and recommendations with regard to the defense of Saudi Arabia. I am addressing myself to the military factors of your air defense and not to any of the political aspects of the problem which only you can evaluate.

The Air Defense survey prepared for your country by the United States last year concluded that either the F-5 or the F-104H equipped with proven air-to-air missiles of the Sidewinder variety is capable of meeting the military threat facing your country. Since either aircraft can perform the air defense mission and additionally can play a tactical or ground support role, all factors, including military capability, maintenance and other technical problems, training problems, economic impact and delivery dates must be considered in selecting one of the two aircraft. After careful review of these, I am strengthened in my belief that the recommendation initially given you in the summer of 1962 was sound and that if I were asked to make a present choice for your country, I would select the F-5 for the following reasons:

The F-5 was specifically designed as a dual purpose supersonic air defense and ground support aircraft offering maximum combat readiness and reliability through its relative design simplicity, ease of maintenance, and flight safety. In your present border situation, ground support capability is particularly important. This gives the F-5 a great advantage over a plane designed solely for interception.2 Moreover, operational readiness can be obtained much earlier in the F-5 than in the F-104 because it is easier to learn to fly. I doubt the complex electronic equipment of the F-104G which adds greatly to cost and maintenance is necessary for your mission. The lower attrition rate of the F-5 is another important factor.

In addition, the twin engine reliability of the F-5 is, of course, a major consideration when flying over large expanses of desert. When the F-5 was selected as the modern follow-on aircraft for Norway, Greece, Turkey, Spain, Iran, Korea, Thailand, Ethiopia, the Philippines [Page 468]and the Republic of China, the various factors mentioned above were taken into consideration. For defense against bomb-carrying aircraft attacking your country, either the F-5 or the F-104 will be effective. In the light of your recent expressions of grave concern about the threat facing the kingdom, I will do my utmost to expedite deliveries of either type of aircraft and related equipment such as mobile radars to be stationed on your southern borders. At this time I can state that we believe we can deliver up to twelve F-5 aircraft within three to four months. I expect combat training time for Saudi pilots may require at least this long.

While I am fully aware that in defense of one’s country no expense should be spared, it is the belief of myself and my staff that the additional capabilities of the F-104 would not justify the difference of nearly $35,000,000 between the cost of three squadrons of F-5s and a like number of F-104Gs. That difference could, in my judgment, be used more effectively to cover some of your other requirements.

In analyzing your air defense requirements, and in order to provide a greater overall air defense, you might wish to use the difference between the initial cost and the maintenance and operational costs of F-5s and F-104Gs to supplement the F-5 with some HAWK batteries of surface-to-air missiles, which we are still prepared to sell to you for deployment to defend Jidda and possibly other areas in Saudi Arabia. These missiles have an all-weather defense capability.

The F-104 is, of course, also an excellent and fast aircraft. If you consider that you require an F-104 series aircraft, we would gladly supply you with the F-104G or, as previously offered, the F-104H.

I have noted your interest in acquiring the Sparrow missile for the aircraft you select. Neither the F-5, the F-104G nor the F-104H has been designed to carry the Sparrow, the ultimate adaptation to either of these aircraft is questionable. Accordingly, I would recommend for your use the Sidewinder, which is an excellent air defense weapon.

At the time you inform me of your decision on your choice of aircraft we will be prepared to follow up promptly the other recommendations in the air defense survey required to develop an integrated air defense system. These include the communications facilities, ground radar and RSAA air defense weapons recommended in our survey.

With respect to your stated interest in 3-D radar, I understand that various proposals have been made to you. However, I recommend the more reliable and proved FPS 100/FPS 89 combination, which replaces the FPS 20/FPS 6 respectively, recommended in the air defense survey. Most 3-D radar systems are still under development. Our experience has shown that the height or altitude of a target is not generally required on every sweep of the search antenna and reliability and simplicity are more important. In fact, it is the third dimension of height finding [Page 469]which is still unsatisfactory. A radar operational for a maximum part of the time under all conditions is much more valuable in defense than a more complicated system requiring more frequent repair and maintenance.

I hope the foregoing is helpful. I assure you that General Leahy and the staff of the United States Military Training Mission stand ready to advise you not only on training but on the immediate and longer range problems relating to the defense of the integrity and security of Saudi Arabia, for which my government has so often demonstrated its concern. If I can be of further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me.3


Robert S. McNamara 4
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, RG 330, OSD Files: FRC 70 A 1266, Saudi Arabia, 381, 3 Mar. 65. Secret. The text of the letter was transmitted to Jidda on April 5 in telegram 509. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964-66, DEF 12-5 SAUD)
  2. Telegram 514 to Jidda, April 6, instructed the Embassy to delete this sentence from the letter to avoid a possibly misleading implication. (Ibid.)
  3. In telegram 771 from Jidda, April 6, Hart reported that he had delivered McNamara’s letter to Saqqaf that morning. (Ibid.) Telegram 778 from Jidda, April 7, reported that the Embassy had sent the amended page to Saqqaf, who had not yet delivered the letter to Sultan. (Ibid.)
  4. Printed from a copy that indicates McNamara signed the original.