The fate of the F-15 assembly line in St. Louis, and thousands of jobs tied to it, may hinge on the White House’s attitude toward a tiny oil-rich monarchy that sometimes riles its Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf.
The Emirate of Qatar wants to buy at least 36 of the air-superiority jets, and possibly 72, but the purchase has been held up for two years as the administration of President Barack Obama ponders whether to allow it.
The issue is entangled in the shifting geopolitics and strained alliances of the Middle East, along with Israel’s concern that the sale may shrink its military advantage.
Boeing is now busy building F-15s for Saudi Arabia and has enough work to keep the line running to 2019. Absent new orders, the line will shut down then.
The Qatar order is now the best bet for extending production beyond that, although Israel might order more F-15s if the United States increases aid to the nation.
The F-15 line “does have a finite life at this point,” says Chris Higgins, defense analyst at Morningstar in Chicago.
Also on hold is an order from Kuwait for 28 F/A-18 Super Hornet attack jets, also made by Boeing in north St. Louis County.
Boeing has enough orders for the Hornet and its electronic warfare cousin, the EA-18 Growler, to take production into 2018. The Kuwait orders, plus planes that the U.S. Navy is requesting, would carry the work into 2020.
Boeing also is pitching Hornets to Denmark, Belgium, Finland and Canada.
“The F/A-18 is relatively better positioned in the international market,” Higgins said. The Hornet is benefiting from problems slowing the rollout of the F-35, the newest advanced fighter made by Lockheed Martin.
The fighter lines are important to St. Louis. Boeing employs about 15,000 people here, and the Super Hornets, Growlers and F-15 fighters are their main local products. The company has not said how many work on the St. Louis fighter lines, but they number in the thousands.
The Qatar orders seem caught in a tug of war, with the Defense Department pushing in favor, Israel pushing against, and the White House undecided.
In congressional testimony this month, Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of the U.S. Central Command, supported the Qatar and Kuwait purchases. He has previously called Qatar “one of our most stalwart partners in the Gulf,” noting that it hosts the forward headquarters of his own command and special operations bases, and has placed billions of dollars in orders for American-made weapons.
But Qatar’s support of Islamist groups around the Middle East has sometimes rattled the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf monarchies.
The trade journal Defense News last month, quoting unidentified Israeli sources, reported that Israel was opposing the Qatari sale, and expressing concerns about the Kuwait deal.
“Why do we object to Qatar? Because Qatar directly helps Hamas and has an ideology that fuels extremists like the Muslim Brotherhood,” a former Israeli Cabinet official said, as quoted by Defense News.
Israel might relent if the U.S. boosts its own military aid package. A $50 billion, 10-year package would allow Israel to add F-15s to its expected purchase of more F-35s, Defense News reported.
Qatar is a Persian Gulf nation of 2.2 million, numbering three-quarters the population of metro St. Louis. Its oil wealth gives it one of the highest per capita incomes on the planet.
The Al Thani family, which has ruled since the 1800s, has tried to play an outsized role in regional politics, beginning with its founding of Al Jazeera news.
Qatar’s rulers follow the same conservative Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam as in Saudi Arabia. But the Qataris have shown favor to Islamist groups and supported the uprisings of the Arab Spring.
“Qatar sees Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood as the future of the Middle East,” said Krister Dylan Knapp, senior lecturer on history and foreign policy at Washington University. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states see such groups as threats to their regimes.
Hamas rules the Gaza Strip and is a sworn enemy of Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood won election after the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt but was overthrown in a military coup.
In the early days of the Syrian civil war, Qatar gave support to the Al Nusra Front, which the U.S. calls an ally of al-Qaida, Knapp said. Qatar has since withdrawn that support.
On the other hand, Qatar played a military role in U.S. and European effort to overthrow the Libyan regime of Moammar Gadhafi and helped fund the rebels.
Sheik Tamim bin Hamad, just 33 when he succeeded his father as emir in 2013, has walked back some support of Islamist organizations. Qatar has helped the U.S. in efforts against Islamic State, and with the Saudis against Iranian-allied rebels in Yemen.
Israel has no good security reason to oppose sales to Kuwait and Qatar, said Loren Thompson, chief at the Lexington Institute, a defense think tank in suburban Washington. Qatar is on the Sunni side in growing tension with the Shia regime in Iran. That conflict has allied Israel’s interest with the Sunni-dominated states of the Persian Gulf.
“The notion that Kuwait or Qatar pose a threat to Israel is preposterous,” Thompson said. “Qatar’s problem is Iran, not Israel.”
Others are less certain. Richard Aboulafia, of the Teal Group of military aviation consultants in Washington, notes that Qatar wants to improve its relations with Iran. “The country has made it absolutely clear that they like to work both sides,” Aboulafia said.
The F-15 “is really a top-of-the-line fighter,” said Aboulafia, and Qatar’s attitude could make some U.S. officials nervous. “There’s just not a lot of trust.”
However, Aboulafia says he’s baffled by the delay in approval for Kuwait, which raises none of those issues.
The Israeli embassy did not respond to a request for comment from the Post-Dispatch. The Qatari embassy was considering offering an interview with its ambassador but had not responded by Friday evening.
Boeing issued a statement noting its long relationship with Qatar and saying it supports the approval process.
The long delays in approvals are raising questions in Congress. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., complained about it in January, and Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., is echoing the call.
“The Obama administration seems to be delaying the sales of F-18s to Kuwait and F-15s to Qatar against the advice of its own Defense Department,” Blunt said in an emailed statement. “The administration needs to explain its reasoning,”
Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Harrisonville, Mo., plans to holding hearings on the delay. She chairs the subcommittee on investigations of the House Armed Services Committee.
“Do we want our allies to start buying aircraft from Russia or China? Do we want to lose those valuable jobs?” she asked.
The long wait for approval has Qatar and Kuwait looking for alternatives. Qatar last year ordered 24 Rafale fighters from France. Kuwait negotiated to buy 28 Eurofighter Typhoons, but the deal has been blocked by the nation’s audit bureau over cost concerns.
Sales of Lockheed Martin F-16s to Bahrain, another Persian Gulf nation, are also stuck in the Washington approval process.