THE United States trade deficit is running at the rate of about $160 billion a year. The US government is doing its utmost to encourage export sales. It has just lost a $30 billion sale. The British got the deal. Here is the story of another lost sale that could have helped to reverse the American trade deficit.
McDonnell Douglas is the manufacturer of the best-known and perhaps the most advanced fighter plane in the world - the F-15.
Saudi Arabia is the richest of the Middle East oil countries, the most conservative, and the closest and friendliest to the US. It prefers US military weapons. It has been trying for three years to buy a second lot of 60 F-15 fighters for its Air Force.
The Saudis bought an original batch of 60 F-15s in 1981. Israel objected. There was a verbal tussle in Congress. The deal did go through. The 60 were delivered. At latest count the Saudis still had 45 from that first order.
But airplanes wear out. Later models of the F-15 are considered an improvement. The Saudis were asking for the E model. The ones they have are B and C models.
One condition the US imposed on the original sale of F-15s to the Saudis was that they be operated only from bases on the Gulf side of Saudi Arabia, not near Israel.
Last week the British government announced in London that it had signed ``a memorandum of understanding'' with the Saudis under which various British contractors will provide Saudi Arabia with 72 Tornado fighter-interceptors in addition to a broad range of other military equipment including trainers, helicopters, naval minesweepers, and help in building air and naval bases.
The Saudis bought their first batch of Tornadoes in 1986 after failing to get clearance in Congress for the second lot of 60 McDonnell Douglas F-15s.
The Tornadoes and the F-15s are both regarded as fine military aircraft. The F-15 has a longer range but less close fighting equipment. The Tornado, for example, can fire laterally, on both sides at once. A Tornado could fly just above an enemy runway and destroy planes parked on both sides.
Previous to 1986 the Saudis bought most of their military equipment from the US. But determined opposition of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington has in effect blocked further sales. With the new agreement just signed in London, Britain will replace the US as prime supplier of military exports to Saudi Arabia.
The Tornado was designed as a cooperative venture by the British, West Germans, and Italians. The three largely use Tornadoes in their own air forces. They are all happy to have Tornadoes sold to the Saudis. There is no effective pro-Israel lobby in those three countries.
One advantage to the Saudis in buying from Britain is that there will be no restriction on where they can base the planes.
Last week a surprise voice vote in the US Senate blocked a proposed $1.9 billion package deal for US weapons to Kuwait.
The package includes Maverick air-to-ground missiles and 40 F-18 fighters. There is speculation that Kuwait will now follow the Saudi lead and look for its modern weapons elsewhere.
An Israeli lobby spokesman was quoted In The New York Times as being pleased with its success in blocking these deals.
The State Department spokeswoman, Phyllis E. Oakley, said, ``We think [the blocking] hurts our American interests.''
Israel has consistently tried to prevent close and friendly relations between the US and Arab countries. For example, on July 14, 1954, the US Information Agency offices in Cairo and Alexandria, Egypt, were fire-bombed. The bombing was done by a spy ring operated by Israeli military intelligence. The assumption was that US relations with Egypt would be harmed. But the spies were caught, and they talked. The episode is known in Israeli history as ``The Lavon Affair.'' It was fully aired in the Knesset.