WASHINGTON The United States plans to sell up to $60 billion worth of military aircraft to Saudi Arabia, the U.S. State Department announced on Wednesday in a move designed to shore up a region overshadowed by Iran.
Andrew Shapiro, the assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, told a news conference the U.S. administration did not anticipate any objections to the sale from Israel, traditionally wary of arms sales to nearby Arab countries.
"We think it will enhance regional security and stability rather than diminish it," Shapiro told a news conference.
The sale, which had been expected, includes 84 new Boeing F-15 aircraft and 70 upgrades of existing Saudi F-15s. It also includes 70 of Boeing's Apache attack helicopters and 36 of its AH-6M Little Birds.
In addition, the deal will include 72 Black Hawk helicopters built by Sikorsky Aircraft, a unit of United Technologies Corp..
Shapiro said the total value of the package would not exceed $60 billion, although he emphasized that Saudi Arabia may choose not to exercise all of its purchase options during the program, which will last from 15 to 20 years.
Alexander Vershbow, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, said the United States had discussed the matter with Israel, and concluded that it would not undercut Israel's qualitative military edge in the region.
"We have consulted with Israel as this sale has taken shape ... based on what we've heard at high levels, Israel does not object to this sale," he said.
Vershbow and Shapiro both stressed that bolstering Saudi Arabia's own defense capabilities would improve U.S. security in a vital part of the world where fears are growing over Iran's nuclear program.
"This is not solely about Iran," Shapiro said. "It's about helping the Saudis with their legitimate security needs ... they live in a dangerous neighborhood and we are helping them preserve and protect their security."
Vershbow said the sale would improve Saudi Arabia's ability to coordinate with the United States on shared security challenges "so it means we may have to station fewer forces on a continuing basis in the region."
U.S. and international concern about Iran's growing military capability includes advances in a nuclear program the West believes is aimed at developing atomic weapons -- accusations Tehran denies.
The United States has also flagged concern about Iran's growing missile capabilities and has been quietly helping Arab states boost their missile defenses.
That includes the expected sale of the THAAD missile defense system manufactured by Lockheed Martin Corp to the United Arab Emirates. Similar talks are underway with Saudi Arabia.
U.S. officials are also discussing a possible deal to upgrade Saudi Arabia's navy, which one official estimated could be worth an additional $30 billion.
(Reporting by Andrew Quinn; Editing by Sandra Maler)