Arab AWACS: the view from the technical side

By , David F. Emery, Republican of Maine, is a member of the Armed Services Committee and chief deputy Republican whip in the US House of Representatives.

Recent news reports indicate that the proposed sale of five AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia is foundering in Congress. Fifty-four senators and approximately 230 congressmen have cosponsored resolutions condemning both the AWACS deal and the delivery of Sidewinder missiles and conformal fuel tanks for the 62 Saudi F-15 fighters. As one of the House cosponsors, I obviously object to these arms deals, but I believe my position is based on a careful assessment of the true significnace of the weapons involved.

To listen to the unwavering enemies of the AWACS deal, the average reader would assume the United States proposes to transfer nuclear weapons to the Saudis with no strings attached. In reality, as the Air Force grudgingly admits , the AWACS plane is a highly advanced but vitually defenseless surveillance plane, suffering from many of the shortcomings that have troubled reconnaissance aircraft since World War I.

Consider, for example, the fact that there was an AWACS plane aloft during the Israeli raid on the Iraqi reactor, and that the Israeli jets were never detected. Although the true surveillance range of the AWACS is classified suffice it to say that the Israelis were beyond detection range throughout the course of their flight. The AWACS plane was looking east into Iran from the Persian Gulf coast of the Arabian Peninsula, guarding against attacks from Iran or the Soviet Union. In fact, at its cruising altitude of 29,000 to 32,000 feet , the AWACS could not detect, say, an Israeli tank column or a supply convoy, and may have difficulty with certain aircraft, depending on their speed, altitude, and formation.

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Consider, also, the further significance of the AWACS position during the raid. As noted, the planes are primarily intended to provide advance warning of attacks on the oilfields by the Iranians or the forward-deployed Soviets. To this end, they are almost always looking east, as they were during the incident in question. In order for the Saudis to utilize the AWACS for the purpose of coordinating an attack on Israel, they would have to violate the Air Force's margin of safety by deploying the AWACS very close to Israel's eastern frontier. This would leave the plane very vulnerable to the same F-15s and F-16s that were employed in the Iraq raid. And, because the AWACS has no armaments of its own, it would have to call on Saudi fighters for defense, and the ensuing air battle would almost certainly be won by Israel.

From a practical point of view, the Saudis would have a great deal of difficulty operating the planes on their own, even after they obtained title to them. Current plans call for extensive US Air Force and contractor involvement with the planes long after the deliveries begin in 1985. The Air Force also plans to remove certain classified "black boxes" prior to delivery, which would limit even further the Saudis' ability to harass Israel. Opponents rightfully charge that the Saudis are not to be trusted to use the planes for Persian Gulf duty only, but the point is that, if we trust the Air Force, the Saudi ability to make mischief with these aircraft will be kept to a minimum.

So why do I oppose the sale of the planes, as well as the delivery of the F- 15 enhancements? Simply because the Saudis have given no more compelling reason for ownership than that they consider this deal a test of our friendship. If we follow this reasoning, it would seem that a willingness to sell weapons is a criterion for anyone to be friends with the Saudis. Saudi officials have been quoted repeatedly threatening to approach other countries, even the Soviet Union , if their requests for American arms are denied. This, to my mind, is not the behavior of a friend and should not be regarded as such by the administration.

Whether this rhetoric has the substance of intent behind it is hard to tell, but it contains no unassailable arguments for turning over the keys to our most advanced nonstrategic surveillance planes. The four AWACS currently on rotating deployment in Saudi Arabia are sufficient to fulfill the mission of oilfield protection, and, if the Saudis are truly our friends, they will not persist in making demands which test our relationship beyond reason.

Secretary of State Haig has told the press that the administration intends to proceed with the deal, although, in deference to congressional opposition, it may be delayed somewhat. All members of Congress have access to the classified information on the AWACS mission and capabilities, but the most convincing argument against the sale is available in the public statements of the Saudi leadership. Perhaps "blackmail" is too blunt a characterization, but the Saudis clearly feel they have the necessary leverage, economic or otherwise, to wrench victory from the jaws of apparent defeat. Nearly 300 members of the House and Senate clearly feel otherwise.

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