U.S. State Department Notifying Congress of F-16 Sale to Bahrain

The U.S. State Department is set to approve a sale of F-16s to Bahrain.

Two sources familiar with the proposed sale of F-16s to Bahrain have told Bloomberg News that the U.S. State Department is looking to move forward with the sale, without any preconditions.

Citing the sources, Bloomberg News reported, “The U.S. State Department told Congress it backs the sale of 19 Lockheed Martin Corp. F-16 fighters to Bahrain without preconditions on improved human rights previously demanded by the Obama administration.”

The officials indicated that these discussions pertained solely to a sale of new aircraft and did not also include an upgrade package for the F-16s currently in Bahraini service. Bahrain has previously considered upgrading its F-16s to the F-16V standard.

The proposed sale is worth $2.7 billion. Previous estimates that included the support package put a contract at around $4 billion.

The previous Administration under former U.S. President Barack Obama approved fighter jet sales to several Gulf countries in late 2016 but stalled the Bahrain sale over concerns about the country’s human rights conditions. Former President Obama sought assurances on improvement in human rights policy before approving the F-16 sale.

Army General Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East, pointed out Bahrain in particular in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.

He said, “While we have historically enjoyed a strong mil-to-mil relationship with our Bahraini counterparts, the slow progress on key FMS cases, specifically additional F-16 aircraft and upgrades to Bahrain’s existing F-16 fleet, due to concerns of potential human rights abuses in the country, continues to strain our relationship.” ‘FMS’ refers to foreign military sales, a program for U.S. arms exports.

General Votel added, “We continue to urge the government of Bahrain to reverse steps it has taken over the past year to reduce the space for peaceful political expression in its Shia population and have encouraged the Bahrainis to implement needed political reforms in the country.”

Amnesty International criticized the decision to lift the human rights preconditions, writing in a press release that the decision was made “despite [Bahrain]’s record of oppression against dissidents and participation in a Saudi-led coalition that has bombed thousands of civilians in Yemen.”

Regarding the proposed sale, Amnesty International USA advocacy director Sunjeev Bery stated, “While getting weapons from the U.S., Bahrain’s government is silencing critics at home and participating in a military coalition that is bombing civilians in Yemen. This deal sends a dangerous signal to Bahrain and all other countries that engage in serious human rights violations.”

As Weapons 4 Trade noted in January, President Donald Trump, while not taking a public stance on the Bahrain F-16 sale, was likely to move forward with the sale with less restrictions. U.S. Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), Chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, earlier this year expressed optimism in completing the sale.

Over the coming weeks, the Congress will be informally notified of the sale, leading to a formal announcement that the Congress will have 30 days to address. That formal announcement will occur at the end of a 40-day consultation period.

The office of Senator Corker confirmed it had been notified by the State Department of plans to approve the sale.

Approval from the State Department does not mean a sale has been concluded. During the 30-day period following the formal announcement of State Department approval, the Congress may block the sale should such a measure receive enough support.

Congressional roadblocks on arms sales are rare. Some U.S. Representatives and Senators moved to block a sale of tanks to Saudi Arabia last year, but that measure ultimately failed. The Congress did effectively block a sale of F-16s to Pakistan earlier in 2016 by preventing Pakistan from utilizing foreign military financing from the U.S. in purchasing eight F-16s. Though that deal could still be completed, Pakistan is unlikely to want to foot the entirety of that bill, meaning it is essentially blocked. 

About Derek Bisaccio

Military markets analyst, covering Eurasia, Middle East, and Africa.

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