Saudis buy in London

SAUDI Arabia has long wanted to buy a second batch of American-made F-15 fighter planes. It is taking delivery on an original sale of 62 of these top-grade American military aircraft. It has asked for an additional 48. It is convenient for an air force to stay with a single model of aircraft. It simplifies the spare-parts inventory. Also, the United States has been the main supplier of weapons to the Saudis ever since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt received the King of Saudi Arabia aboard an American warship in the eastern Mediterranean toward the end of World War II.

Over the weekend it was reported in Saudi Arabia and confirmed in London that the Saudis have decided to forget about getting any more American F-15 aircraft. Instead, it will buy 48 British-built Tornado F Mk 2 military aircraft.

The Tornado is produced by a British-West German-Italian consortium which in 1969 was given the assignment by the three countries involved of developing and producng an all-weather, all-European fighter plane to serve West European's military needs through the following two decades, or more. Test trials began in 1976. Orders were placed in 1979. Production has begun. The British Royal Air Force has 80 on line, with more coming. The West Germans have 60 and the Italians 36. The all-European Tornado is be ginning to replace American-built fighter aircraft in the arsenals of the West European allies.

So far the European consortium has had no sales of Tornadoes outside Western Europe. The three countries involved have hoped that with the Tornado they could begin to crack the near-monopoly which US suppliers have long held in top-grade military aircraft. The French have also been wanting to crack the American market, and have done so with some success. They were in the market with their Mirage fighters before the Tornado was launched.

The three producers and three different aircraft have long been in competition for the Saudi market. The deal for the 48 fighters is estimated in value between $3 billion and $4.8 billion. Any foreign order in the neighborhood of $4 billon would be welcome in Washington, since the US trade deficit for the current year is expected to go to $150 billion.

President Reagan had approved the sale of the F-15s to Saudi Arabia. There is no reason to doubt that the order would have gone to McDonnell Douglas, builder of the F-15, had the Saudis been able to obtain the aircraft from them on satisfactory terms.

The order has gone instead to the British Aerospace PLC, which produces the British version of the Tornado.

A reason cited from Saudi Arabia for the choice of the Tornado over the F-15 was freedom from ``uncertainty'' and from ``restrictions.''

The ability of McDonnell Douglas to complete the sale has been clouded by opposition in Congress to the sale of any military aircraft to any Arab country. Former President Jimmy Carter succeeded in persuading Congress to allow the original sale of F-15s with great difficulty and at a high political price. President Reagan persuaded Congress to authorize the sale of AWACS (advanced warning and control) planes after another bruising struggle with Congress.

It is conceivable that Mr. Reagan could have won out, had he used his influence to the full in another contest with the pro-Israel faction in Congress. But he is already in contest with Congress over sanctions against South Africa, his tax reform package, the military budget, and other controversial issues. His plate was already full. Could he have taken on more?

Besides, even if the sale had weathered its way through a wrangle in Congress, it would have emerged with a stipulation that the American-built planes be based elsewhere than at Tubuk Air Base, a military base about 100 miles from the southern tip of Israel. The British are not putting a similar condition on the sale of Tornadoes.

So the US loses a $4 billion order and Israel gets 48 Tornadoes on its southern flank instead of 48 F-15s on the far side of Saudi Arabia.

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