Advancing a Free Society

Panzers for the Kingdom: The German Tank Sale to Saudi Arabia and Israel’s Silence

Monday, August 1, 2011

In early July, Germany’s prestigious weekly Der Spiegel reported that Berlin was set to sell 200 of its most advanced main battle tank, the Leopard Type 2A7+, to Saudi Arabia.

Surprisingly to some, in Israel there was nary a sound. After all, because of the Holocaust, Germany has always had a special and sensitive relationship with Jerusalem and has never sold arms to countries still at war with Israel.

But in actuality, Israel has a long history of looking the other way when its friends and allies sell arms to its enemies. This is because Israel knows that arms sales are important for political and economic reasons. Moreover, with the growing threat of Iran, Israel has for years realized that the Arab Gulf monarchies share a common interest with it. Indeed, there are often reports of secret contacts between Israeli and Saudi leaders over just this matter.

QME: Maintaining Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge

The golden mean on arms sales in the region from Israel’s perspective has always been maintaining Jerusalem’s qualitative military edge (QME). In the United States, Israel’s QME is mandated by law and the administration must certify that proposals of arms sales “to any country in the Middle East other than Israel” include “a determination that the sale or export of the defense articles or defense services will not adversely affect Israel’s qualitative military edge over military threats to Israel.”

During talks with US defense officials in 2006, Israel expressed its concerns about the loss of QME in a secret non-paper, including which systems it believed would violate QME. With respect to Saudi Arabia in particular, it stressed fears for Saudi stability and objected to the stalking by two Saudi F-15s of the Israeli Prime Minister’s flight to the Sharm al-Shaykh summit of February 2005. Despite all its detailed concerns, Israel stressed that while it “preferred” that the US not sell state of the art weapons to the Gulf states, it had chosen not to object to specific sales “considering wider American interests in the region.”

As the US geared up to negotiate a huge arms sales to Saudi Arabia (eventually announced in 2010), Israel continued to let its objections be known, particularly regarding the capabilities of the F-15SA on the block for Riyadh. But US Ambassador to Tel Aviv James Cunningham reasoned that joint QME working groups were addressing the concern and provided complete transparency to allay Israeli fears. Furthermore, he assessed that an argument could be make that Israeli objections were at least partially aimed at improving the terms and conditions of the impending sale of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to Jerusalem.

It appears that as of this writing that the two countries have reached an understanding that assures Israel’s QME. The Saudi fighters “will reportedly lack ‘standoff systems,’ which are long-range weapons that can be used in offensive operations against land- and sea-based targets,” wrote the Congressional Research Service, and Jerusalem seems to have received cooperation on the systems it wishes to install on the F-35. Israel made no public objection to the Saudi sale.

Leopards for Saudi Arabia…

Reports first surfaced in late 2010 that Riyadh was considering the Leopard main battle tank. Saudi Assistant Defense Minister, Prince Khalid bin Sultan, visited Spain in November, where the tanks are manufactured by General Dynamics-Santa Barbara under license from Germany’s Kraus-Maffei Wegmann and Rheinmetall, to discuss a purchase.

But the real news hit with the Der Spiegel story, because it came after Saudi Arabia participated in the March 2011 suppression of a Shiite uprising in Bahrain. German opposition parties objected. The deal was said to be worth $2.8 billion. It fit in nicely with the kingdom’s attempts to diversify its arms suppliers. Its tanks are currently of French and American manufacture.

For Germany the agreement represents a significant market breakthrough and financial opportunity for German firms. And, most certainly, it will be a boost to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, which has been taking a beating over European debt bailouts. Germany is already a major contributor to the Eurofighter, which has been purchased by the Royal Saudi Air Force.

Israel’s foreign ministry initially declined comment on the reported deal. But later Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told the daily Die Welt, “First let me stress that I am unaware of an upcoming tank deal between Germany and Saudi Arabia…. It is in the nature of such matters that one does not speak about them publicly. But I can assure you that we fully and completely trust Germany’s government.”

…and Dolphins for Israel

There is no doubt that Ayalon was dissembling about the deal, although Israel’s trust in Germany was genuine. The two countries have a long and largely secret military relationship, including a reported project code-named Bluebird, involving a long-range, high-resolution target-discrimination sensor that would help Israel distinguish between incoming nuclear and non-conventional missiles.

Following the 1990-1991 Scud missile attacks on Israel during the Gulf War, Germany agreed to provide Israel with three Dolphin class submarines manufactured by Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft, footing 50% of the cost. In August 2006 it agreed to finance one-third of the cost of two more, and in May 2011 it was reported that Israel would purchase a sixth sub from Berlin. But the official announcement of the deal was obviously timed to offset the reports about the Leopard sale to Saudi Arabia. Days after those reports, German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere arrived in Israel on July 12, and a few days later it was reported that Germany had agreed to subsidize the new sub.

Of the ten bow torpedo tubes on the subs, four have a 650mm diameter and can launch large cruise missiles. There are many reports that Israel can launch a nuclear warhead from these subs delivered by the Popeye Turbo missile, thus providing it with a new strategic second-strike capability against Iran. Israeli subs have transited the Suez Canal, and reportedly have been deployed in the Persian Gulf.

The QME Balance

QME is the prism through which Israel views arms sales to the region, and it is through QME that we must view the muted Israeli response to the German sale to Riyadh. Just as Israel and the US struck a balance between the F-35 sale to Israel and the F-15SA sale to Saudi Arabia, Jerusalem and Berlin struck a balance between the continued sale of the Dolphins to Israel, and the Leopards to Saudi Arabia.

(photo credit: Marko Vallius)