U.S. Arms Sale to Saudis Advances Amid Uproar Over Smart Bombs

The State Department notified Congress that it’s moving to issue a license for the sale of 7,500 precision-guided, air-to-ground munitions valued at $478 million to Saudi Arabia, according to two officials familiar with the issue.

Raytheon Technologies Corp. can sell the weapons directly to the Saudi government after receiving the license, which will likely be issued before the Biden administration takes office Jan. 20. Details of the proposed sale were informally briefed to lawmakers in January and drew the criticism of Democratic lawmakers who declined to clear the license.

Lawmakers and human rights groups have criticized the use of U.S. weapons by Saudi’s military against civilian targets in Yemen, a conflict the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. But President Donald Trump has made the kingdom the centerpiece of his Middle East strategy, dismissing concerns about human-rights issues by saying the Saudis could just go spend their arms budget elsewhere.

Included in the pending sale are Raytheon’s Paveway IV smart bomb, the most advanced version of which includes inertial navigation/GPS and laser-guidance for all-weather attacks. The U.S. had sold about 8,000 earlier model Paveways as part of a 2015 deal that included about 5,000 other munitions.

The U.S. sold another $1.5 billion of an unspecified number of “enhanced” Paveways to Saudi Arabia last year that the State Department approved under an $8.1 billion “emergency” authorization. That sale enraged Democrats, who called for an inspector general review.

The latest State Department notice, sent to Congress late on Tuesday, also suggests that Raytheon plans to expand its existing business relationship with the kingdom to include future manufacture of munitions overseas.

The Waltham, Massachusetts-based company “proposes to amend a manufacturing license agreement” to “transfer defense articles, defense services, and technical data for the assembly, design, development, intermediate level maintenance, manufacture, modification, operation, repair, testing, and demilitarization of components for” weapons and other items, according to the notice sent to Congress.

The moves come as President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to review the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. Pushing the weapons sale forward now means it will be essentially wrapped up by the time Biden takes office on Jan. 20.

Retired four-star General Lloyd Austin, Biden’s pick as defense secretary, has served on Raytheon’s board since 2016 and is expected to recuse himself from major decisions involving the company. Nevertheless, he’s likely to be pressed about his view on Saudi arms sales during his confirmation hearing.

New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is among those lawmakers who had declined to support the sale when it was first raised in January.

“The administration has not made a persuasive case concerning the national security reasons and implications for the sale of thousands more precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia , nor engaged directly with Senator Menendez on his concerns,” said a spokesman.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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