U.S. arms to Gulf allies hint of strategy

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The largest infusion of U.S. arms ever for Persian Gulf allies has shifted more toward offensive weapons at the same time that President Obama’s military strategy says it will rely more on allied firepower in any future war.

The only war on the horizon for Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and four other Gulf coalition partners would be with nearby Iran.

Noting U.S. sales of air defense-penetrating F-16s and F-15s, satellite-guided bombs and a pending order for ordnance that can burrow deep and then explode, analysts say Gulf nations could participate in a U.S. air campaign to strike Iran’s nuclear sites.

These American-armed nations could either be part of an overall war plan or be forced to enter the battle once Iran counterattacks, as expected, with missile launches.

“The thinking certainly is that Iran would retaliate against the Gulf states, or at least against the facilities in the Gulf that we use,” said Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East analyst at the Congressional Research Service. “That would certainly draw the Gulf states into any conflict that went on. The Gulf might become embroiled in this conflict, and I think they’ve calculated it’s best to be prepared.”

There has been public focus on the U.S. military buildup in the Gulf — more aircraft carriers, warplanes and strike groups studded with Tomahawk cruise missiles; more minesweeping ships; a visit by Air Force F-22 stealth jets; and thousands of Army soldiers positioned in Kuwait.

But just as methodically, the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have approved a series of large arms sales that are giving some oil-rich Gulf states offensive capabilities that would make Iran think twice about an attack.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta underscored the alliance Dec. 11 when he landed in Kuwait, a staunch Gulf ally, for consultations. He also spoke to some of the 13,500 U.S. troops stationed there.

“Our presence in Kuwait and throughout the Gulf helps advance the capabilities of partnering nations, deters aggression and helps ensure we’re better able to respond to crisis in the region,” Mr. Panetta told reporters beforehand.

At a Kuwait air base, he said America has 50,000 troops and an armada of warships in the region.

Desert Falcons

Mr. Obama’s strategic guidance in January enabled cuts in U.S. troop strength in part by saying that allies would be tasked with providing more firepower in future wars. To observers, that seems to mean the Gulf states would be asked to do more.

The Congressional Research Service, which tracks global arms sales, took special note in its latest report on U.S. weapons pouring into the Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain.

“The U.S. arms agreements with Saudi Arabia were extraordinary, and represent, by far, the largest share of U.S. agreements with the world or developing world in 2011,” the Congressional Research Service said.

Of $56 billion in total U.S. arms sales in 2011 to developing nations, more than half — $33 billion — were inked with the Saudi kingdom. U.S. defense contractors have seen a sales increase from $14 billion in contracts in 2010 to $56 billion in 2011, mostly thanks to oil-rich Gulf states.

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