JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — The official Saudi press agency said Saturday that the government has completed a deal with Britain for a major purchase of jet fighters and other military hardware. British and U.S. sources in Washington placed the value at $3 billion.
The sources disclosed that the Saudis, unable to get a commitment from the Reagan Administration on a proposed purchase of F-15 fighters for their air force, have decided to purchase 48 British-made Tornado combat jets as part of a larger arms package.
A brief statement issued here in the Saudi capital said the agreement is in line with the kingdom's plan to "diversify the source of its arms" and involves jet fighters and other equipment for the air force, but no details were given.
The announcement followed reports in Washington that the Reagan Administration, because of congressional opposition, is expected to drop plans to include 40 additional F-15 jets in a $4-billion arms-sale package for the Saudis.
According to those reports, the package will would include Stinger, Sidewinder and Maverick missiles, armored vehicles and helicopters.
In London, the British Defense Ministry said Britain and Saudi Arabia have agreed in principle on the sale of military aircraft.
A ministry spokesman declined to elaborate, but the Sunday Times of London said the deal involves 48 Tornado fighters and 30 Hawk jet trainers. The paper put the total value of the arms package at $4.8 billion, a figure considerably higher than that quoted by the Washington sources.
The newspaper said the package also includes a complete range of weapons, radar and spare parts for the aircraft and a training program for Saudi pilots.
Saudi Arabia has 62 F-15 fighters that were acquired in the 1970s and form the backbone of its aerial combat power. It also has about 100 F-5s and five airborne warning and control system (AWACS) radar surveillance planes obtained from the United States.
The British and U.S. sources in Washington said the deal will be one of Britain's largest arms sales ever and results in part from an intensive personal sales campaign by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who visited briefly with King Fahd during a stop in Saudi Arabia last spring.
The sale is expected to stir controversy. According to British officials, Britain will not impose conditions on how the fighter planes will be used or where they may be stationed in Saudi Arabia, as the United States was prepared to do in deference to Israeli security concerns.
Also, the sale reportedly will be financed in part by the barter of Saudi oil to Britain for remarketing abroad. Saudi Arabia's partners in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries have previously strongly resisted barter sales of this kind.
A British official said his government has been reassured that the United States would not object to the Saudi decision to go ahead with the British deal.
The sale, if made final, would beat out a longstanding bid by France, which last spring was reportedly on the verge of clinching a deal to sell a similar number of Mirage 2000s to the Saudis. The agreement reportedly fell through because of the insistence by Saudi Arabia, which is short of readily available cash reserves, that at least half the price be paid in oil.
The Tornado is produced by a British, Italian and West German consortium, but the planes are assembled and marketed by state-owned British Aerospace.