137. Telegram From the Embassy in Saudi Arabia to the Departments of State and Defense1

305. Following from Ambassador in Riyadh. Subject: Phantoms. Ref: Jidda 219.2

When General Dunlop and I met with MODA Prince Sultan Jan 25, he spoke at some length of current Saudi estimate growing threat of external aggression exists from PRSY, YAR, Syria and/or Iraq. Threat could even develop through Dhofar. Claimed Saudi intelligence based on agents and radio intercepts suggests increasing number of Soviet military advisors being deployed to PRSY (septel).3 Saudis believe that eventually PRSY, with Soviet advisory support, will launch another military attack on Saudi territory similar to Wadia aggression.
On contingency basis SAG is actively preparing for this possibility. It is planning construction of several new airfields and upgrading of two existing strips in southern area and is considering acquisition additional ground support capability to meet such threat. All of this is further burden on SAG’s already hard pressed finances.
Sultan then launched into long, bitter criticism of inadequacies British consortium and Lightning aircraft. He referred to Saudi air defense contracts with British as “greatest mistake I ever made.” He recounted at length background of British involvement in joint air defense effort, including Dunlap mission to dissuade Saudis from buying 104G’s, former Secretary McNamara’s alleged effort persuade Saudis buy Lightnings by getting British offer very attractive terms, last minute McNamara message that if Saudis did not wish Lightnings 104G’s might be available and final conclusion contract. Only half jocularly he argued USG largely responsible for Saudi purchase of Lightnings which have proven to be inadequate in capability and performance.
While in Paris recently, Sultan continued, Dupre had broached possibility SAG purchasing Mirage III’s. When Sultan reported this to King, Faisal instructed him do nothing about French approach. If French formally raised subject, he was to parry query by indicating [Page 439] SAG still studying matter. Faisal, according Sultan, had also asked him query me, informally, if USG would be willing sell SAG “one or two squadrons of Phantoms” which would obviate need for expensive additional airfields and aircraft. Recognizing sensitivity of subject, Saudis do not wish raise matter formally lest they receive turndown, but Sultan wanted my personal view likely USG reaction to such request.
I pointed out to Sultan that even with Phantoms, SAG would still require emergency airfields in outlying areas. I could give him no official reply, but he should know in all frankness that any such request would be very awkward and difficult. Apart from high level of technical expertise which sophisticated aircraft such as Phantom requires and high costs, any such sale coming at time when Arab-Israel problem unresolved and showing signs further deterioration could arouse domestic and international storm. In circumstances, I would not wish give him any encouragement Phantom sale likely and suggested instead RSAF focus on improving Lightning program. Though obviously disappointed, Sultan seemed to expect this answer.
Comment: This is highest level Saudi approach on Phantoms that we have had to date. We sought discourage Sultan, though his interest may be expected continue and we may not have heard last of subject. In one sense no further response is needed, though if we have anything more positive to say this would be helpful. As devil’s advocate for a moment, case could be made that selling Phantoms to Saudis could be (A) evidence of US evenhandedness, and (B) hardly change balance of air power in area. Saudis have requirement for long range aircraft in connection with threat to its southern frontiers. Lack of Saudi technical skills, finances, manpower shortages and likely international repercussions any such sale clearly weigh heavily against any such early sale. Will continue discourage any such requests.4
Dept please repeat CINCSTRIKE/MEAFSA and CHUSMTM.
  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, DEF 12–5 SAUD. Secret; Exdis.
  2. In telegram 219 from Jidda, January 19, Eilts noted a developing Saudi interest in F–4 Phantoms in connection with contingency planning for what the Saudis referred to as their “southern threat” (Yemen), and in connection with their dissatisfaction with the British Lightnings. (Ibid.)
  3. Apparently a reference to telegram 211261 to Tehran; see footnote 2, Document 135.
  4. In telegram 349 from Jidda, January 29, Eilts reported that Prince Sultan asked the United States on January 27 to “think about” selling “two or three squadrons” of F–4s to Saudi Arabia to offset Nixon’s promise to sell them to Israel. According to Eilts, Sultan argued: “It will take Saudis at least two years to have trained personnel and no aircraft deliveries necessary for at least that period. Thus, such offer to sell Saudis would in no way threaten Israel which will in any case know limited Saudi capability.” Eilts hoped that the Saudis would not attempt to make the sale of Phantoms a test of U.S.-Saudi friendship. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, DEF 12–5 SAUD)