Bush Pushing Tank Sale to Saudis

White House says US must sell hardware or another nation will; job creation, savings cited. HAWKING WEAPONS ABROAD

`FOR sale to foreign nations: the US M-1 tank. Seats four. Top speed of 43 miles per hour. Custom camouflage paint. Sporty new A2 option package includes luxury commander's station and bigger gun. Act now for mid-'90s delivery.'' The United States government has not run an ad like this in the classifieds of any publication. But it is pushing to market the top-line US M-1 overseas and bolster American manufacturing exports.

Saudi Arabia is the latest potential M-1 customer. President Bush has notified Congress that he wants to sell the Saudis $3 billion worth of M-1s, support trucks, spares, ammunition, and training.

US arms sales to Arab nations are always controversial, due to concerns about Israeli security. The White House says the tanks would not threaten Israel - and that if the US does not make the sale, another Western country will.

``The likelihood that someone will sell a very modern tank to Saudi Arabia in the next year is very high,'' said a State Department official at a background briefing last week.

The slab-sided M-1 is the newest tank in the US Army's arsenal. Weighing 68 tons, it flattens hillocks as it bounces cross-country at 30 m.p.h., its gyro-equipped gun remaining eerily stable.

As yet no overseas customer for the M-1 has actually taken delivery. Egypt has recently signed a big co-production contract, and will begin assembling kits of the A1 model of the M-1 at a new plant near Cairo sometime in 1991.

Pakistan, Canada, and Britain are now weighing M-1 purchases. Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf nations may soon enter the tank market, the State Department reports.

Saudi Arabia wants to buy 315 of the latest model M-1, the A2. Featuring a larger 120mm gun, tougher armor, and an improved commander's weapons station, among other things, the M-1A2 is scheduled to enter US service in 1993.

The Bush administration has been working hard on the Saudi tank deal for months, holding long discussions on Capitol Hill in an effort to head off any serious congressional opposition to the sale. In stressing the economic benefits of the sale, White House officials make two main points:

The Saudi order is a turning point in the battle for share of the world tank market. It would give the US a leg up on the British, who have sold tens of billions of dollars worth of Tornado jets to the Saudis and who have been marketing their Challenger II tanks as an alternative to the M-1.

It might even nudge the British themselves into an M-1 purchase. The Challenger II is currently in full-scale development, but a production decision will not be made until next year. General Dynamics, maker of the M-1, still holds out hope that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government could opt for the cheaper US tank, especially if Challenger II draws no export orders.

`WE'RE not out of it at all,'' claims a General Dynamics tank division official.

Saudi purchase of the M-1 could save jobs in the Midwest's Rust Belt. Currently, General Dynamics has tank plants in Warren, Mich., and Lima, Ohio. Earlier this year, the Defense Department tried to shut down the Michigan line, claiming split production was inefficient. A big export order would ensure enough business to keep both lines open and humming.

With more orders in hand General Dynamics could also lower the unit price of the Pentagon's M-1s. The Saudi purchase could save the US Army $150 million over five years, according to documents prepared by the Defense Department.

Unlike many other countries, the Saudis don't demand a share of the production of weapons they buy, or finance their purchase with US government aid. ``They pay cash,'' notes a Pentagon consultant who studies tanks.

Despite the emphasis on its economic aspects, the sale's future in Congress will likely hinge on its perceived impact on Middle East stability. Would the Saudis threaten Israel with the M-1s?

The White House says no. The Saudis ``see threats mainly coming from the northeast,'' said a State Department official. ``Iran and Iraq.'' Most of the tanks would be deployed in this area, the State Department says. Some might be deployed in the northwest, the region of Saudi Arabia closest to Israel, because ``that is where the Saudi armored training school is,'' said the official.

So far the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee has not come out strongly against the Saudi tank sale. Many key senators and representatives who often lead battles against sending equipment to Arab countries have been similarly quiet.

Not all, however. ``The jury is still out,'' says an aide to Rep. Mel Levine (D) of California, who intends to push for more talks with the State Department and possibly a congressional hearing on the issue.

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