The Pentagon has notified Congress of a planned sale to Saudi Arabia of as many as four Littoral Combat Ships made by Lockheed Martin Corp. for $11.25 billion, as the U.S. works to bolster defenses of its Gulf allies after the nuclear deal with Iran.
The State Department approved the sale under the Foreign Military Sales program, according to a statement Tuesday on the website of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency. The approval allows the Saudis to negotiate contracts for the ships unless Congress passes legislation to block the deal.
The ships are part of a planned modernization, replacing older U.S.-built vessels in the Royal Saudi Navy’s Eastern Fleet. The sale also begins to deliver on President Barack Obama’s pledge to improve the military capabilities of the U.S.’s Arab allies. Saudi Arabia and other nations in the Gulf Cooperation Council sought such reassurances before acquiescing to the U.S.-led deal with Iran on its nuclear program.
The Saudis and other Sunni Arab nations were unnerved that, in exchange for curbing its nuclear program, their Shiite rival Iran will win relief from crippling economic sanctions and access to billions of dollars in frozen funds. Russia’s military intervention in Syria alongside Iran to back President Bashar al-Assad has further raised sectarian tensions in the region.
U.S. military aid to the Gulf nations is limited by legislation requiring that the U.S. maintain Israel’s qualitative military superiority over its Mideast neighbors, blocking the sale of cutting-edge weapons such as the F-35 fighter jet. But the ships sold to the Saudis will be the first major export of a new, U.S.-built surface naval vessel in years, the U.S. official said.
The Littoral Combat Ship, designed for operations in shallow coastal waters, is made in two versions by Lockheed and Austal Ltd. The deal would be for the “Freedom” variant made by Lockheed, the largest U.S. government contractor.
The ships will give the Saudis “protection-in-depth for critical industrial infrastructure and for the sea lines of communication,” the U.S. defense agency said in the statement. “Saudi Arabia will use the enhanced capability to keep pace with the rapid advances in technology and to remain a viable U.S. coalition partner in the region.”
While the Navy has championed the new littoral ship as an agile and adaptable vessel, the Pentagon’s director of testing has questioned its ability to survive a potential enemy attack. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has challenged the reliability of new underwater drones for the ship that are intended to hunt down mines from a safe distance.
Congress has 30 days to disapprove of the sale before it takes effect. It could be years, however, before a contract is actually signed.
The U.S. is offering a version of the Littoral Combat Ship called the “Multi-Mission Surface Combatant” customized to Saudi requirements. The planned sale includes potential purchases of engineering, logistical and training support for Saudi naval personnel; radar and sonar systems; munitions and fire-control systems.