WASHINGTON — In an action expected to touch off a bitter new debate in Congress, the Reagan Administration will soon announce plans to sell 12 sophisticated F-15 warplanes to Saudi Arabia, a government official said Friday.
The official, asking not to be identified, said the new planes are intended only as replacements for aircraft that have been lost in training accidents or worn out. He said the sale will not increase the number of F-15 jet fighters owned by the desert kingdom's air force above the 60 that Saudi Arabia purchased in 1978.
Nevertheless, the plan is certain to be opposed by Israel's congressional supporters.
Last year, the Senate, then controlled by Republicans, stopped one vote short of blocking the sale of $265 million worth of missiles to Saudi Arabia. With the Democrats now in control of both Senate and House, the Administration may find it impossible to win approval for the latest sale.
The F-15 package, expected to be worth about $500 million, is expected to be sent to Capitol Hill next week. United Press International reported Friday that the Administration will later announce the sale of about $400 million worth of other arms, including 13 Blackhawk helicopters and 15 Bell 406 helicopters equipped with machine guns, rocket launchers and TOW anti-tank missiles.
The newest sale comes at a sensitive time in U.S.-Saudi relations after congressional testimony that the Riyadh government contributed $2 million a month to a White House-managed fund to support the anti-Sandinista contras in Nicaragua. In all, Saudi Arabia is believed to have contributed more than $30 million to the contras. Some congressional critics have charged that the Administration's solicitation of those contributions may have violated a ban on U.S. aid to the rebels that was then in effect.
Saudi Arabia traditionally has obtained its military equipment from the United States. However, that relationship has become increasingly troubled in recent years.
Last year, the Saudis purchased $7.8 billion worth of British-made Tornado fighter-bombers after concluding that Congress would not permit the sale of 75 F-15s. Although that F-15 package was widely rumored, it was never formally proposed by the Administration.
Administration officials said the Saudis have lost about six of their original force of 60 F-15s. If the new 12-plane deal is approved, the officials said, replacements for the wrecked aircraft would be sent immediately and the others would be kept in storage in the United States until they were needed to replace other jets that wear out or crash.
The Administration considers Saudi Arabia to be among the United States' closest friends in the Arab world. However, supporters of Israel object to the sale of sophisticated weaponry to the kingdom, which is still technically in a state of war with Israel.
Both the Senate and House passed legislation blocking last year's sale of 100 Harpoon air-to-ship missiles and 1,666 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles to the Saudis. Reagan's veto of the bill was overturned by the House but sustained by the Senate on a 66-34 vote against the sale. A two-thirds majority--67 votes if all 100 senators are present--is required to override a presidential veto.
Under the law governing arms sales, the deal will become final 30 days after the Administration sends Congress the formal notification unless both houses pass legislation to block it. Because a presidential veto would be certain, opponents of the sale must muster enough votes for an override to prevail.