Washington — Saudi Arabia's bid to enhance the combat capability of the US F-15 fighters it is buying may prove to be the most severe test President Carter has yet faced of his Middle East, arms-control, and energy policies.
As a bellwether of US dependence on Arab energy supplies and of the Carter-Mondale re-election campaign's reliance on Jewish electoral support, it could prove critical for the President in domestic politics, too.
Defense Secretary Harold Brown is to meet the Saudi Defense and Aviation Minister, Prince Sultan, in Geneva, June 26 to try to delay a showdown over the request.
Israeli supporters have vowed a congressional fight to the finish to block the Saudi request to buy bomb racks, long-range fuel tanks, and sophisticated missiles. These would convert the 60 450-mile-range, McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle air-superiority fighters, not yet delivered to the Royal Saudi Air Force, into fighter-bombers with a strike range of more than 1,000 miles, enough to hit Israel and return.
This would whittle down the 3- or 4-to1 qualitative (although not quantitative) superiority that Middle East defense analysts believe the Israeli Air Force still holds over the air forces of its combined Arab challengers.
The Saudi counter-argument is likely to be given to Secretary Brown by Prince Sultan in these terms, as voiced by Saudi supporters here:
"We have done our best to keep oil prices from breakaway increases and have kept our production above our own needs, for your economic health. You and we both are worried about the Soviets in Afghanistan threatening us and the oil. Well, here's a chance to live up to your part of the bargain by helping us to defend both."
But Secretary Brown, among other US leaders, is not convinced that the Saudi "restraint" policy in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the world oil cartel, is working anymore. He told newsmen as much last week. Arabian and Persian Gulf states, he said, depend on the United States for their defense. Continually pushing up oil prices was making that defense task harder and harder for the US to accomplish, Secretary Brown added.
What is more, when President Carter soon signs into law his new ombibus energy bill, he will be accepting a directive to begin immediately building the US strategic petroleum reserves, stored in Louisiana salt caves, from their present low level of 91 million barrels to an eventual 750 million barrels. An additional $1 billion is to be spent in fiscal 1981 alone to buy extra oil for the reserves.
Oil Minister Ahmad Zaki Yamani and other Saudi spokesmen have frequently warned US administrations against filling the stockpiles. They argue thiswilldiscourage energy conservation. They have indicated they would cut Saudi production below the present figure, convenient for the West, of 9.5 million barrels per day, if the stockpile plans go ahead.
"It would appear," said one congressional staffer, "that the Saudis have deliberately chosen this crucial moment in oil policy, as well as the pre-presidential campaign, to cash in some of the chips our friendship has given them, to challenge the power of the Israeli lobby, and to test the strength of their own Arab lobby."
Carter administration insiders say the Saudis have so far take no high-pressure approach. They quietly made known their wishes to the US ambassador in Jeddah, their capital, and also leaked the story to a Washington newswoman. Discussions have been under way for some weeks, and Secretary Brown's meeting with Prince Sultan is unlikely to decide the question, the insiders add.
US officials hope, however, that the meeting and other diplomatic efforts may persuade the Saudi royal family that it is in its best interest, as well as that of the US, to delay the F-15 issue. Its timing at the moment when the petroleum reserves controversy seems near, and when next November's political candidates traditionally seek Jewish support, would make a bruising congressional battle probable.
Senate majority leader Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia says he sees "no rationale to justify this kind of offensive equipment" for the Saudis. The Saudis would endanger their relationship with the US by insisting on sales of equipment specifically excluded from the original 1978 sale of the planes, Senator Byrd indicated.
Arms-control experts say the sale might violate some of President Carter's own somewhat vague 1977 guidelines on limiting sales of offensive weapons or new systems to non-NATO friends. But acknowledge such guidelines have possibly already been violated in other cases.