227. Memorandum From Secretary of Defense Brown to President Carter1


  • Acceleration of F–15 Deliveries to Saudi Arabia

On a number of issues, it is very important to U.S. security for this Administration to take actions during the transition period that the incoming Administration (a) may find it much harder to take, and (b) may even publicly disagree with, but which (c) they and the country will be glad we have taken. Our relations with Saudi Arabia fall into this category. As a result of your and my statements, the Saudis (particularly Defense Minister Sultan) have concluded that the United States is an unreliable partner in arms supply. Prince Sultan himself appears to believe that we have gone back on my commitment to him last June to review all their F–15 enhancement requests.2 Sultan has already curtailed some of our cooperative arrangements—e.g., joint cooperative planning—and he is reported to be on the verge of further curtailments, possibly asking for the withdrawal of our AWACS and even of turning away from the U.S. entirely as Saudi Arabia’s source of aircraft and air defense equipment and training in favor of the French. (S)

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Our special relationship with Saudi Arabia is already damaged, but could become more so as a result of these actions. Not only would our influence over Saudi oil decisions be lessened, but our vital need to develop assured access to Saudi facilities, including prepositioning, in order to deter or meet a Soviet threat to the Gulf, would be set back—perhaps irreparably. Without these Saudi facilities, our whole Persian Gulf/Indian Ocean strategy would be undermined. (S)

I am responding to a letter sent to me by Prince Sultan; in it, I indicate to him that our attitude is the same as I conveyed to him in Geneva in June.3 But this will not solve our problem. (S)

I believe, therefore, that if we are to prevent further deterioration of our relations with the Saudis over the next few months, it is necessary to take some additional action almost immediately. The most promising one that we have been able to find is an acceleration of deliveries (without any of the additional equipment the Saudis have requested) of the F–15s already approved by the Congress.4 The present delivery schedule calls for six aircraft to be delivered to the Saudis in the third quarter of calendar 1981 for training use in the United States, with nine more to be delivered during the first quarter of 1982 in Saudi Arabia itself. By diverting some deliveries now scheduled for the USAF and paying them back later, it would be possible to deliver the first six aircraft to the Saudis during the first quarter of calendar 1981. By putting these in Saudi Arabia we could speed deliveries in-country by a year, although the first deliveries to Saudi ownership would be accelerated by only six months. The training and maintenance in Saudi Arabia itself would have to be done by U.S. military and civilian personnel. In addition to being seen by Sultan as a positive gesture and very likely calm him down from the affront, this would provide us a foot in the door to prepositioning and joint operations. (S)

We could take six F–15s from the normal production line destined for the USAF and deliver them to Saudi Arabia in January 1981. A small initial cadre of Saudi F–5E pilots could be expeditiously trained on these six aircraft in-country at Dhahran rather than coming to the U.S. The scenario would envisage the following USAF training team:

  • —one detachment commander.
  • —seven highly qualified USAF instructor fighter pilots.
  • —one maintenance officer with 125–150 maintenance personnel (a mix of USAF and contractor people). (S)
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This combination of early aircraft delivery and early Saudi training would provide not only meaningful support to the Saudis at a critical time in our relationship with them, but also a near-term enhancement to their air defense capability. (S)

Congress has been told about the existing delivery schedule, but no promise was made to consult before changing it. As part of the same package that went through the Congress in 1978, Israel was supposed to get the first of six F–16s in the fourth quarter of 1981. We accelerated this to the first quarter of 1980 without consulting the Congress. In this case, I believe we should notify Congress after we discuss the matter with the Saudis but before the deliveries are actually made.5 (S)

This is not an alternative to dealing later with the Saudi requests for conformal pods and aerial refueling for F–15s, let alone the question of bomb racks. After the decision on acceleration is made, we still must promptly consider the timing and nature of consultation with Congress on those issues. (S)

Dave Jones had extensive discussion in Saudi Arabia in September with Sultan which convinced him we are at a crossroads in our relationship.6 The quick response on AWACS and other air defense assistance created new opportunities, but the strong negative reaction to the comments on bomb racks has incensed Sultan because he believes his personal reputation is on the line.7 He needs a quick positive action by the United States to take him off the hook. This is particularly important to us because Sultan has been the chief supporter in the Saudi government of closer military relations with the United States. All of the Joint Chiefs strongly support quick action. Zbig concurs. Ed8 agrees with the need but has some concerns which he will express separately to you with respect to Israeli and Congressional reaction. (S)

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My own belief is that while the Israeli reaction might risk having some adverse impact on the autonomy negotiations, we should be able to give the Israelis a satisfactory explanation of what we are doing and why. In any event, the prospect of averting a major breach with the Saudis must take precedence. (S)

If you agree, I would propose to have Dave Jones who has developed a positive relationship with Sultan as a result of his September trip and the AWACS deployment, convey the proposal personally to Sultan in the next few days. Dave will leave on Saturday to visit General Evren in Turkey and could easily divert into Saudi Arabia during this trip.9 (S)

Harold Brown
  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 68, Saudi Arabia: 11/80–1/81. Secret; Via Alpha Channel. A copy was sent to Muskie.
  2. See Document 217.
  3. Neither Sultan’s letter nor Brown’s reply was found. For the June 26 discussion, see Document 217.
  4. See footnote 2, Document 172.
  5. In a November 6 memorandum to Carter, Muskie recommended that Carter approve Brown’s recommendation regarding congressional consultations. Carter wrote “I called H. Brown J” in the upper right-hand corner of the memorandum. (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 68, Saudi Arabia: 11/80–1/81)
  6. See Document 221.
  7. In an interview on October 24, Carter was asked about selling Saudi Arabia equipment for the F–15s, such as bomb racks, that would give them an offensive capability against Israel. Carter answered: “There will be absolutely no change in the assurance given to the Congress in 1978 by Secretary Harold Brown, acting under my instructions, on the sale of F–15’s to the Saudi Arabians. In accordance with those assurances, we will not agree to provide offensive capabilities for the planes that might be used against Israel, and that obviously includes bomb racks.” (Public Papers: Carter, 1980–81, Book III, p. 2431)
  8. Reference is to Muskie.
  9. In a November 11 memorandum to Muskie, Brzezinski noted that Carter had “approved the acceleration of F–15 deliveries to Saudi Arabia as described in Secretary Brown’s memorandum of November 5.” (National Archives, RG 59, Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs, General Program Country Files Concerning Security Assistance (arms) Programs (1980–1984), Lot 86D371, Box 2, Saudi F–15 1980)