Saudi Arabia is close to placing an order for as many as 72 Boeing F-15 fighter jets, industry and defense sources tell us. Growing security concerns over Gulf neighbor and perennial troublemaker Iran are pushing the Saudis to upgrade their air fleet with a particular emphasis on precision strike aircraft.
The Pentagon is expected to approve the sale as it seeks to counter Iran’s recent break-out as a regional power and quell nervousness among Gulf Arab states troubled by Iran’s growing stockpile of increasingly accurate and long-range ballistic missiles. Foreign military sales are managed through the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency. DSCA did not respond to an emailed request for information.
The F-15 order would come on top of Riyadh’s purchase of 72 Eurofighter Typhoons in 2006, the first of which are just now being delivered to the Gulf kingdom. The Saudis currently operate around 71 two-seat F-15Ss, a variant of the F-15E Strike Eagle with downgraded avionics, Hughes APG-70 radar and LANTIRN targeting pod. They also operate 66 single-seat F-15Cs and 18 two-seat F-15Ds air-superiority fighters, according to figures compiled by CSIS’s Anthony Cordesman.
I spoke with Boeing’s Patricia Frost, and while she wouldn’t comment specifically about a potential Saudi F-15 buy, she did say Riyadh, along with other potential international customers, has expressed interest in the recently unveiled F-15 “Silent Eagle” variant. A modified F-15E, the Silent Eagle includes radar absorbent materials added to leading edges, canted vertical stabilizers that reduce side radar returns, and weapons carried internally in conformal fuel tanks. The modifications provide some reductions in both the aircraft’s head-on radar signature and also some improvement against air-defenses, she said.
DoD Buzz friend Stephen Trimble has a good write up on the Silent Eagle available here. A flight test demonstration of the Silent Eagle variant is scheduled for early next year, Frost said.
Last year, Riyadh requested 900 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) tail kits, another Boeing product, to convert “dumb” iron bombs into “smart” bombs. The JDAMs were to be carried by the Royal Saudi Air Force F-15S strike jets. The sale got hung up momentarily by Congress, as large weapons sales to Arab states often do, but ultimately went through.
I asked Travis Sharp, a military analyst at The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, in Washington, DC, about the likelihood that Congress would interfere with a Saudi order for more F-15s. It was very unlikely, he said. The last time Congress really tried to block a major arms sale was the Saudi AWACS deal back in the 1980s, and even that sale eventually went through.