213. Telegram From the Embassy in Saudi Arabia to the Department of State1

2794. Dept please repeat to White House, USCINCEUR Vaihingen GE, USLO Riyadh, CHUSMTM Dhahran SA, and USMTMDET Riyadh SA. Subject: Saudi Arms Requests: Meeting With Sultan. Ref: (A) State 106679;2 (B) Jidda 1173.3

1. (S-entire text).

2. Summary: Sultan reacted constructively, in the main, to the initial USG responses to specific Saudi arms requests, despite his evident disappointment about unmet RSAF requirements. For the latter—including the conformal fuel pods, multiple ejection racks, and tankers—Sultan proposed an exchange of letters of intent by which USG agreement in principle to these sales, subject to congressional concurrence, could be established. While Sultan was willing to put the AWACS issue aside for the present time, and had no objection to deployment of USAF AWACS to Saudi Arabia, he turned down USAF F–15 visits as inopportune. He gave qualified acceptance to Saudi participation in Red Flag exercises with USAF, however. Other items of discussion included Sultan’s assertion of necessity to update the bilateral agreement concerning USMTM, his acceptance of the Lawrence visit,4 and his non-committal response on a possible visit by the Secretary of Defense. Contrast between our forthcoming responses on land forces requests and our oblique reactions to Air Force needs was not lost on Sultan, who noted that if U.S. would not meet RSAF defensive needs then SAG would be free to seek other sources of supply. However, on balance the meeting produced more positive results than anticipated, and provided the basis for useful continuing discussions with Saudi defense officials. End summary.

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3. On April 30 the Ambassador met for over two hours in Riyadh with Prince Sultan, Minister of Defense and Aviation. Major General Donnelly, Pol–Mil Counselor Marsh, Dr. Gerlach, and Lt. Col. Ryer, AIRA, participated, as did General Humayd (Deputy Minister, MODA), General Hammad (Chief of the General Staff), and Lt. Col. Fahd Abdallah (Director of Operations, RSAF). The purpose of the meeting was to convey to Sultan the initial USG responses (ref A) to the recent SAG requests for arms transfers (ref B).

4. The Ambassador opened the discussion by expressing his conviction, derived from consultations in Washington earlier this month5 that the security of Saudi Arabia is of prime importance to the highest levels of the USG, without exception. Where differences arose was not whether, but how best, to respond to the military requirements of the Kingdom.

5. In this context, the Ambassador indicated that certain technical constraints upon the advisory role of USMTM were being eliminated. Sultan interjected that MODA had under study revision of the bilateral agreement, now nearly thirty years old, under which USMTM conducts its activities. It is necessary to renovate that agreement in order to reflect more fully the present interests of both sides. (N.B. Sultan did not specify what revisions were desired). The Ambassador assured Sultan that the Embassy and USMTM will be happy to work with MODA on this matter.

6. In an additional prefatory statement, the Ambassador informed Sultan that Major General Lawrence would visit the Kingdom soon, in order to make formal presentation to SAG of the USEOPE report. Sultan said that he welcomed the visit, but added his hope that Lawrence would not come with the object of pressing or convincing the Saudis to accept distasteful situations. Generals Donnelly and Hammad should jointly arrange Lawrence’s schedule. The Ambassador concurred.

7. Conveying an invitation for RSAF officers to participate in Red Flag training within the US, the Ambassador underscored the rarity of such invitations to non- NATO members. While responding with appreciation, Sultan displayed considerable sensitivity that participating might imply a lack of technical proficiency on the part of RSAF personnel, or might signify an obstacle to further acquisitions by RSAF. The US press had alleged Saudi incapacity to absorb sophisticated weapons systems; the reverse is the case, and SAG wishes to accelerate the F–15 program. The Ambassador is welcome to see for himself how capably the Saudi forces are assimilating their weapons acquisitions. [Page 684] RSAF pilots have and will receive training in the US, including the Red Flag program.

8. After this extensive airing of Sultan’s respective viewpoints, the Ambassador addressed the specific arms questions. On the land forces items, Sultan received the responses with restrained gratification. Procedurally, Sultan indicated that USMTM and MODA should work together on modalities and delivery schedules. His specific comments were:

  • (A) That when Stinger is deployed with US/ NATO forces it should be made available to Saudi Arabia, whose defense of vital mutual interests equals the NATO role in importance;
  • (B) That Sultan will talk with French Defense Minister Yvon Bourges, when the latter visits Riyadh May tenth, concerning Roland and the multiple launch rocket system (ex-GSRS). Sultan said that SAG preferred to rely on the US as source of its military supply but has had and now has close security assistance relationships with France and the FRG;
  • (C) That SAG remains interested in Lance, although it had not appeared on the latest request list. The Ambassador responded that objective, professional military judgment in the US holds that the Lance is unsuitable for the Saudi inventory, as the Secretary of Defense had advised earlier. It was left that USMTM and MODA would discuss this further.

9. Turning to the Saudi Air Force requests, the Ambassador explained our willingness to explore RSAF needs, to send USAF F–15s and AWACS to the Kingdom, and to undertake appropriate consultations with the Congress in early 1981, respectively. On these subjects Sultan replied vigorously. If Congress objected to meeting the defensive needs of RSAF, then SAG would consider itself free to seek “other sources” for its requirements. Visits of USAF F–15s are not rpt not in the interests of the Kingdom at present—beside this flat turndown, Sultan added the oblique metaphor that “the temperature is now 40 degrees C, and 42 degrees C is fatal.”

10. As for AWACS, Sultan said that visits are acceptable. He suggested that the AWACS question be put to one side for the present. However, he urged, the Secretary of Defense and he should exchange letters acknowledging SAG’s need for pods, MERs, and tankers, and USG agreement in principle to these sales, subject to congressional concurrence. Sultan pressed this point, and the Ambassador gave an unofficial personal opinion that the Secretary of Defense would not, in all likelihood, be prepared to enter into such commitments now. We had proposed the USAF visits and an airborne air-defense surveillance feasibility study. We would thus explore the requirements and prospects for sale of conformal pods. Sultan asked to communicate further with the Ambassador about the F–15 related requests, which was agreed.

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11. At the close the Ambassador reported Secretary Brown’s readiness to include Saudi Arabia on his Middle East trip next month. Sultan expressed his personal pleasure over any visit by the Secretary of Defense but responded that a decision was not his to make. He would consult with the Council of Ministers and advise the Ambassador promptly.

12. Comment: It was clear that the contrast between our forthcoming responses on land forces requests and our indirect reactions to air force needs was not lost on Sultan et al. While managing to restrain display of their disappointment, even dismay, over unmet RSAF needs they consider urgent and self-evident, their dissatisfaction is unmistakeable. Under these circumstances, the meeting was remarkable for its absence of invective and recrimination. Instead, Sultan authorized a continuation of the dialogue over specifics of the various arms requests. The Embassy and USMTM will undertake that dialogue with vigor and will report developments promptly. End comment.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P870094–0934. Secret; Immediate; Nodis.
  2. In telegram 106679 to Jidda, April 23, the Department provided West with the initial U.S. response to Saudi arms requests, stressing that the United States “proposes intensified continuing consultations with SAG on security issues, especially arms requirements.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P870094–0953) See Document 212.
  3. In telegram 1173 from Jidda, February 21, the Embassy referenced the Saudi arms requests, noting: “If until recently unsatisfied arms transfer requests were considered irritants by the Saudis, these unfulfilled perceived needs are now becoming grievances in Saudi eyes.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800091–0326)
  4. See Document 215.
  5. See Document 212.