Thursday, December 29, 2011

U.S., Saudi Arabia Finalize F-15 Fighter Deal

The U.S. State Department announced Dec. 29 that it finalized a $29.4 billion sale of Boeing-made F-15 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia.
U.S. AIR FORCE F-15 Eagles fly over Thailand during exercises in March. (Master Sgt. Cohen A. Young / U.S. Air Force)
"The United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have signed a government-to-government agreement under the Foreign Military Sales program to provide advanced F-15SA combat aircraft to the Royal Saudi Air Force," White House spokesman Joshua Earnest said in a statement.
The agreement was signed Dec. 24, according to the State Department.
The Obama administration first notified Congress of the sale, which includes 84 new aircraft and the modernization of 70 existing aircraft as well as missiles, spare parts, training, maintenance and logistics, in October 2010.
Delivery of the new aircraft will begin in early 2014, while upgrades to older models will start later in the year, according to the State Department.
The sale reinforces "the strong and enduring relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, and demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a strong Saudi defense capability as a key component to regional security," Earnest said.
With this sale, the two countries' air forces will become more interoperable, especially because they will train together on the aircraft, Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller said during a press conference.
According to Miller, 5,500 Saudi Arabian personnel will be trained through 2019.
It will also send a strong message to countries in the region that the United States is committed to stability in the Persian Gulf, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro told reporters.
The timing of the announcement and the latest tensions between the United States and Iran in the Strait of Hormuz are not connected, according to Shapiro.
"This is not directed toward Iran; this is addressing Saudi Arabia's defense needs," he said, adding that work on the sale precedes the latest news out of the region. "We did not gin up a package based on current events in the region."
By law, the U.S. government must evaluate all sales to the region based on Israel's security needs. Having conducted that assessment, "We are satisfied that this sale will not decrement Israel's qualitative military edge," Shapiro said.
The Obama administration officials also emphasized the positive impact the sale would have on U.S. jobs.
According to the State Department, it will lead to 50,000 American jobs in the aerospace and manufacturing sectors. Boeing, the prime contractor, will work with over 600 suppliers in 44 states.
According to a recent report from the Congressional Research Service, Saudi Arabia has remained one of the top three purchasers of U.S. defense articles and services since 2003.
From 2007-10, the United States signed $13.8 billion worth in government-to-government sales agreements with the country.

U.S. Warships Cross Hormuz Despite Iran Threats

WASHINGTON - Two American warships have crossed through the Strait of Hormuz without incident despite Iranian threats to close the strategic oil route, the U.S. Navy said Dec. 29.
THE U.S. AIRCRAFT carrier Stennis is seen where Iranian ships are conducting 10 days of wargames in the Persian Gulf, accoridng to Iranian officials. (Fars News / AFP via Getty Images)
The aircraft carrier John C. Stennis and the guided-missile cruiser Mobile Bay "conducted a pre-planned, routine transit through the Strait of Hormuz" on Dec. 27, said Fifth Fleet spokeswoman Lt. Rebecca Rebarich.
The U.S. military reported no friction with Iran's naval forces after Iranian leaders warned of possibly shutting down the vital strait if the West went ahead with more punitive sanctions over its suspect nuclear program.
"Our interaction with the regular Iranian Navy continues to be within the standards of maritime practice, well-known, routine and professional," Rebarich said in an email from Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain.
The U.S. warships paid a visit to the port of Jebel Ali in the United Arab Emirates before traveling through the strait to the Arabian Sea, where the vessels will provide air power for NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, she said.
In response to Tehran's threats, the U.S. military said Dec. 28 that any attempt to disrupt shipping in the Strait of Hormuz would not be tolerated.
The U.S. aircraft carrier and cruiser made their through the narrow channel as Iran's navy was carrying out war games to the east of the Strait of Hormuz in a show of military might.
Iran's navy commander, Adm. Habibollah Sayari, said the aircraft carrier was monitored as it passed through the strait to the Gulf of Oman, according to Iranian state television.
The strait is a choke point at the entrance to the Gulf through which more than a third of the world's tanker-borne oil passes.
Although Iran could lay mines to disrupt shipping through the narrow channel, Tehran relies on the route for its own oil exports and analysts say the Islamic republic is unlikely to take such drastic steps.

Iran-U.S. Brinkmanship Over Oil Strait Worsens

TEHRAN - A showdown between Iran and the United States over Tehran's threats to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz to oil tankers worsened Dec. 29 with warships from each side giving weight to an increasingly bellicose exchange of words.
THE U.S. AIRCRAFT carrier Stennis is seen where Iranian ships are conducting 10 days of wargames in the Persian Gulf, accoridng to Iranian officials. (Fars News / AFP via Getty Images)
Iran's Revolutionary Guards rejected a warning that the U.S. military would "not tolerate" such a closure, saying they would act decisively "to protect our vital interests."
The tough language came as Iran's navy said a U.S. aircraft carrier entered a zone where its ships and aircraft were in the middle of 10 days of wargames designed to be a show of military might.
The area was in waters to the east of the Strait of Hormuz, a choke point at the entrance to the Gulf through which more than a third of the world's tanker-borne oil passes.
Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi warned this week that "not a drop of oil will pass through the Strait of Hormuz" if the West followed through with planned additional sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.
A U.S. Defense Department spokesman replied with a declaration Dec. 28 that "interference with the transit ... of vessels through the Strait of Hormuz will not be tolerated."
But Brig. Gen. Hossein Salami, the deputy commander of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards, told Fars news agency Dec. 29 that "our response to threats is threats."
"We have no doubt about our being able to carry out defensive strategies to protect our vital interests - we will act more decisively than ever," he was quoted as saying.
"The Americans are not qualified to give us permission" to carry out military strategy, he said.
Iran's navy chief, Adm. Habibollah Sayari, said the U.S. aircraft carrier was monitored by Iranian forces as it passed from the Strait of Hormuz to the Gulf of Oman, according to state television.
The network showed footage of an aircraft carrier being followed by an Iranian plane.
An Iranian navy spokesman, Commodore Mahmoud Mousavi, told the official IRNA news agency the aircraft carrier went "inside the maneuver zone" where Iranian ships were conducting their exercises.
He added that the Iranian navy was "prepared, in accordance with international law, to confront offenders who do not respect our security perimeters during the maneuvers."
The U.S. aircraft carrier was believed to the John C. Stennis, one of the American navy's biggest warships.
U.S. officials said Dec. 28 that the ship and its accompanying carrier strike group was moving through the Strait of Hormuz.
The United States maintains a navy presence in the Gulf in large part to ensure oil traffic there is unhindered.
Iran, which is already subject to several rounds of sanctions over its nuclear programme, has repeatedly said it could target the Strait of Hormuz if attacked or its economy is strangled.
Such a move could cause havoc on world oil markets, disrupting the fragile global economy.
Its navy maneuvers included the laying of mines and the use of aerial drones, according to Iranian media. Missiles and torpedoes were to be test fired in coming days.
Analysts and oil market traders are watching the developing situation in and around the Strait of Hormuz carefully, fearing a spark could ignite open confrontation between the longtime foes.
The United States had proposed a military hotline between Tehran and Washington to defuse any "miscalculations" that could occur as their navies brush against each other. Iran rejected the offer in September.

U.S. Base in Kyrgyzstan 'Very Dangerous': President

BISHKEK - Kyrgyzstan's new leader said Dec. 29 that it was "very dangerous" for his Central Asian nation to host a U.S. military base at Bishkek airport and that it must become a fully civilian airport by 2014.
Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev said he told visiting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake that the annual users fee of $150 million which Washington paid was not worth the risks involved.
"Perhaps they may think that Almazbek Atambayev is doing this under pressure from Russia," said Atambayev, a former prime minister who was elected president of the turbulent nation near Afghanistan last month.
"This is not the case," he stressed. "We want to transform Manas into a fully civilian airport. And keeping a military base for $150 million is slightly dangerous. Not slightly, but very dangerous."
The ex-Soviet republic is the world's only nation to house both a Russian and a U.S. military base, reflecting a recent rivalry between Moscow and Washington in the energy-rich region.
Kyrgyzstan had threatened in 2009 to shut the U.S. base down with immediate effect, a move that followed a massive new loan agreement with Russia.
Washington negotiated a new lease agreement with the Kyrgyz government later that year after raising its payment.
Now officially called the Manas Transit Centre, the base is located at a civilian airport on the outskirts of the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek.
NATO has mapped out a strategy to withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, but the base remains a vital transit point of operations due to current tensions in U.S. relations with Pakistan.
Atambayev said Washington could still have non-combat access to the airfield if it worked with Moscow on jointly transforming Manas into a modern transportation centre.
"Either the Americans leave in 2014 or, jointly with Russia, they make Manas into a joint civilian transport airport," the Kyrgyz leader told reporters.

Pakistan Military Debuts on Graft List

KARACHI - Corruption watchdog Transparency International for the first time has included Pakistan's military in an annual survey, listing it as a notch more corrupt than the country's education department.
The Pakistan chapter of Transparency International reviews and ranks government departments according to the prevalence of graft in the system.
"Our land revenue and police departments are on top in corruption. The judiciary is ranked fourth while military is in ninth position followed by the education department," Sohail Muzaffar, TI Pakistan chairman, told AFP.
Tensions between Pakistan's powerful military and weak civilian government have soared recently over alleged attempts by an aide of the president to enlist American help to curb its powers, citing a feared military coup in May.
The army, feared and admired in almost equal measure, is widely considered perhaps the most professional institution in Pakistan.
Transparency International advisor Adil Gilani said the military had been included "to dispel the impression that our surveys are biased".
"This time, we have ranked the military according to popular response about corruption in it. Next time we will have more comprehensive details," he said.
"It is public perception that others are more corrupt than the armed forces," he added.
Last year, the judiciary came in sixth.
"Delay in case proceedings and punishment has heavily contributed to the development of a perception that the judicial system has also fallen prey to corruption," said Gilani.
The Supreme Court is deciding whether to order an inquiry into the May 10 memo, a move which could build pressure on President Asif Ali Zardari, who has spent much of December fending off speculation that he could step down.