Washington — If the US Senate frustrates President Reagan's plans to sell airborne early warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft to Saudi Arabia, the desert kingdom may seek to buy Britain's Airborne Early Warning (AEW) Nimrod planes instead.
An informed Saudi source tells the Monitor that his country is determined to buy and operate its own radar aircraft, declaring: "We are going to acquire them from whatever source we can."
Called the E-3A sentry by the Air Force, AWACS is basically a converted Boeing 707 with a huge rotating radar dome perched on its rear fuselage enabling it to track hostile aircraft and direct defending planes.
Defense analysts agree that if Saudi Arabia is barred from acquiring AWACS for the defense of its airspace, and particularly its oilfields, Britain's AEW Mark 3 Nimrod (which takes its name from the mighty hunter in the book of Genesis) would probably be the best alternative machine it could buy.
The administration's hopes to sell Saudi Arabia an $8.5 billion air warfare package comprising five AWACS aircraft; 202 fuel &gt;Continued from Page 1&gt; tanks for its F-15 fighters; 1,177 AIM-9l Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and eight KC- 707 aerial refueling aircraft. Last week, however, 50 senators expressed their opposition to the deal.
According to Sen. Robert Packwood (R) of Oregon, who has led the opposition to the Saudi arms sale, two more Republican senators have told him they are prepared to vote against it.
Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D) of Washington predicts they will be joined by four more Democratic senators. If Sen. S. I. Hayakawa (R) of California -- who is known to be of two minds about the deal -- casts an additional vote against the measure, it will crash to defeat in the Senate by 57 votes to 43. But Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., appearing on ABC's "Issues and Answers" Sept. 20 , characterized many of these votes as "soft."
The administration will be forced to abandon the Saudi sale if a majority of the House and Senate vote against it by Oct. 30. Since most observers predict the Democratically controlled house is certain to do so, President Reagan has been attempting to persuade senators of the importance of the deal.
But political observers here note that if he fails to make an impression on them, the first major foreign policy initiative of his administration is assured a resounding reverse.
Senator Packwood believes it would be folly to sell Saudi Arabia the arms package it wants when, in his view, the country is not committed to the cause of peace in the region.
Declaring that Riyadh has "swung a wrecking ball through the Middle east," the Oregon senator observes that it has condemned the Israeli-Egypt peace accords; financed the Palestine Liberation Organization; lead the Arab boycott of Egypt, severed diplomatic relations with Cairo, and called for a jihad, or holy war, with Israel.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusets contends that the Saudi deal is "one of the most dangerous arms sales that has ever been proposed by the US." Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan (D) of New York, pointing out that the US almost sold its sophisticated radar planes to the Shah of Iran demands to know, "Where would we be if the Ayatollah had the AWACS?"
While virtually all those in Congress opposing the Saudi arms sale do so out of a concern for Israel's security, many also contend that Saudi Arabia is far less stable than it might appear. Civil disturbance could lead the technologically advanced AWACS and AIM-91 missile to fall into unfriendly hands, they say.
"This would hurt the US Air Force's ability to counter the superior number of Russian planes in Europe or elsewhere," observes Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R) of Minnesota.
Sen. Don Riegle (D) of Michigan adds that AWACS, "one of the US's most advanced defense systems," should be kept "securely under US military control."
If the prospect of the ungainly AWACS wearing the insignia of the Royal Saudi Air Force is dimming, the chances that the equally ungainly Nimrod might be so emblazoned could be increasing.
When asked last week whether Riyadh might try to buy the British plane, Senator Jackson, a staunch supporter of the Saudi arms ban, replied: "The Nimrod is not AWACS. The difference is night and day. It's apples and oranges."
British sources take exception to what they regard as the Senator's low opinion of the aircraft. "It's a very good alternative to AWACS," says one. Sources in both the US and Britain agree that because the current Nimrod airborne early warning aircraft was developed from a maritime reconnaissance version, its radar performance over water is superior to that of AWACS.
Although not conceding inferiority in this respect, Boeing spokesman Jim Grafton observes that while "Nimrod was optimized for the detection of ships at sea, AWACS was more optimized for picking up low-flying aircraft over land masses."
But just as AWACS has an effective maritime capability, so Nimrod has an effective ovelrand capacity, having been fitted with a new radar system for that purpose, note observers. In fact, according to "Jane's All the World's Aircraft , "the British plane can provide "at long range and at low or high altitude, detection, tracking and classification of aircraft, missiles and ships." A Jane's supplement issued last October claims Nimrod can simultaneously plots surface ships and detect both high-and low-flying aircraft, the latter at up to ranges of 300 miles. The aircraft is reportedly fitted with highly sophisticated anti-jamming equipment.
One British source assured the Monitor that the Nimrod's radar is "far superior" to that employed by AWACS over sea or land. But not all those interviewed supported this claim. One source in the British aircraft industry, who asked not to be named, said he thought that, in some respects, the Nimrod was less impressive when operating over land than the AWACS.
If the Royal Saudi Air Force does consider acquiring Nimrod, however, it may balk at its lack of ability to control aerial battles, a function that the Boeing AWACS can perform. Although Jane's claims that the Nimrod "could provide . . . interceptor control and direction of strike aircraft," the plane lacks the requisite command and control gear to perform that function, according to informed sources.
But one aviation observer says that its manufacturers, British Aerospace, could rectify that shortcoming if a potential buyer had the money to pay and the time to wait while new equipment was developed and installed.
Although British Aerospace and Her Majesty's government might be only too delighted to sell Nimrods to Saudi Arabia, two additional obstacles could effectively block such a deal. The Nimrod production line has been closed down after producing 11 airborne early warning versions of the aircraft for the British Royal Air Force.To start it up again could easily cost $100 million and would involve training a labor force from scratch, according to one source.
Moreover, British military chiefs and members of Parliament might not relish selling an aircraft packed with classified equipment to a country where insurrection could deliver it into the hands of a hostile government or, at worst, into the clutches of Soviet agents eager to learn its secrets.
But President Reagan is not about to let British Nimrods take to the skies over Saudi Arabia if he can help it. He expected to fight tooth and nail for the Saudi arms package even though Senators he has discussed the matter with say he does not seem particularly knowledgeable about the role and performance of AWACS aircraft.
The US Air Force is presently operating four AWACs aircraft in Saudi Arabia, for which Riyadh is footing the fuel and support costs.
Observing that the crews and equipment have performed "superbly," Air Force Chief of Staff General Lew Allen nevertheless contends that "It is now time for the Saudis to begin to assume these responsibilities."
In a report on AWACS and Saudi Arabia just published by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars here, Anthony cordesman stresses the need for the Saudis to have "sovereignty" over the radar planes. "Any other long-term arrangement for deployment of the AWACs . . . would be an anathema in terms of Saudi internal political stability, Saudi ability to lead the other conservative Gulf states and in provoking hostile reactions from the more radical Arab states ," he declares.
He suggests that to compensate Israel for expanding US-Saudi military ties, Washington should provide it with more economic and military asssistance. Specifically he feels that it should establish "a long-term defense planning effort" with Israel to deal with "the kind of Arab threat that may arise in the late 1980s."
Observers here expect the already heated AWACS debate to become increasingly fierce in the weeks to come as the President, Secretary of State and the chairman of the Senate armed services committee, Sen. John Tower (R) of Texas attempt to woo and cajole senators into approving the Saudi arms deal.
But if the administration concludes it can not get its way, it will reluctantly start casting around for a compromise, observers say.