Washington — The radar planes the US would like to sell Saudi Arabia are beginning to look decidedly less awesome as Israeli opposition to the deal mounts. According to US Defense Department officials, the Airborne Warning and Control Systems aircraft will not only lack any communications intelligence-gathering capability, but will be unable to spot tanks and armored vehicles on the ground. Also, they will be "sitting ducks" if deployed close to Israeli territory, particularly in "the notch" between the Gulf of Aqaba and the Jordanian border.
"It's frequently stated that this airplane has a communications intelligence-gathering capability, and that is absolutely not true," insists a defense official. "This airplane only has radios for command, control, and communications. It has no intercept radio."
He also denies that AWACS can play any role in the collection of electronic data, which he describes as "the gathering of radar intelligence" by means of "receivers specially designed to tape radar emissions for later analysis."
While appearing to scotch suggestions that AWACS aircraft supplied to Saudi Arabia might have intelligence-gathering equipment aboard, the official takes issue with their reported ability to perform battlefield surveillance duties.
Though conceding that AWACS can detect "very high-speed targets on the ground ," the official insists that "it cannot detect tanks, APCs [armored personnel carriers] or any other vehicle."
With Israeli fears clearly in mind, he declares: "I can assure you [that] no military surface equipment could ever be seen. It is a simple fact that the airplane does not have a ground-mapping mode. . . . It can't even differentiate between cities and the desert."
But AWACS Boeing 707-320Bs currently being manufactured are able to detect "patrol-boat size shipping and larger" with their radar rotodomes, says the official, whose identify the Pentagon requested not be revealed. Any AWACS sold to Saudi Arabia would have this maritime feature, he adds.
The Pentagon makes much of the vulnerability of AWACS aircraft operating in "the Notch" from where, for some 200 nautical miles, they can theoretically achieve "low-level [radar] coverage down to about 200 feet above ground level," according to the defense official.
"By getting right on the border there you can see most of Israel," he says. "But it would be a suicide mission. . . . A shoot-down by an Israel fighter would occur within a very few minutes after you reached that orbit."
But the Israelis are not so sure they would be able to down one of the $131 million AWACS aircraft, pointing out that the plane's raison d'etre is the long-range detection of interceptor aircraft. They add, moreover, that the machines would be escorted by Saudi F-15s, equipped -- if the arms package passes Congress -- with range-enhancing fuel tanks and AIM-9L missiles, the most improved version of the Sidewinder.
While the US defense official admits that Saudi AWACS aircraft conducting low-level radar surveillance in "the Notch" would be able to detect Israel fighters at between 175 and 200 nautical miles away, he asserts that "that's very risky -- normally they like to stand even farther back than that."
In fact, the Pentagon doubts the value of low-level radar coverage of Israel from the Notch. "What is [an AWACS aircraft] going to see in that area?" asks the official. "He's going to see normal aircraft traffic, which is intense every day." In his view the "flying radar station" will not be able to distinguish between normal training flights and aircraft departing on a mission. "And if he saw unusual activity, the Israeli fighters would be only minutes away from the targets no matter which of the bases they took off from."
The State Department claims that Israel has little to fear from Saudi AWACS aircraft cooperating with the air defense forces of other Arab countries, because such a venture would require extensive joint training and the use of US-supplied computers and communications equipment which presumably would be unavailable.
The defense official concedes that it is "possible" Saudi Arabia could move the ground receiving equipment it uses in conjunction with AWACS, to assist Iraq in an assault on Israel. But he points out that in that event, the US would, in all probability, withdraw support for all US-made Saudi weapons systems, putting the desert kingdom "in great jeopardy."
But essentially, even if Saudi Arabia did manage, through deceit or ingenuity , to share AWACS-derived information on Israeli air movements with its allies, Israeli aircraft are likely to pounce on them before it could be translated into action. "They'd already be struck by the time they digest the information," says the defense official.
A number of systems currently in use on American AWACS aircraft will not be included on those the Saudis receive, because of their classified status. Most notably the Saudi Royal Air Force will not receive the Joint Tactical Information Distribution System (JTIDS), a sophisticated, jam-resistant, encrypted communications device.
Although, as the official puts it, the US would be "very upset if the Soviets got their hands on AWACS," such a situation "would not be crippling by any means."
According to the defense official, the Saudi AWACS are exclusively designed to watch the Persian Gulf for hostile air and sea activity.