The first defeat ever of a major US arms sales package to a foreign nation may be looming. Congressional opposition to the Reagan administration's proposed $2 billion sale of radar planes to Saudi Arabia is growing to the point where a significant modification of administration plans may be required to avert a major defeat.
Staff members working with senators and congressmen opposed to the sale say that the key question when the issue finally comes to a vote -- probably this summer -- is likely to be that of American control over the planes.
If the US continues to have access to information coming from the AWACS reconnaissance planes and continues to play a role in maintaining the planes, then a compromise over the issue might be possible, these staff members say. Joint control of the planes might be the answer, they say, but Saudi Arabia might not like that idea. A lot of Saudi pride is on the line. Without such arrangements, however, defeat may be inevitable.
Leasing of the planes has been talked about as an option on Capitol Hill, but administration experts discount the idea. They say that no adequate financial arrangement can be found for leasing, when such expensive planes are involved.
The administration is expected to argue, however, that sale of the planes to the Saudis will inevitably give the US a presence in Saudi Arabia that will be useful to a strategy of containing Soviet moves in the Middle East. American technicians will be required indefinitely to keep the planes in operation, they say. Some officials also have started to argue, in private consultations with senators and congressmen, that if the Saudis get the AWACS planes, they will become more forthcoming in their response to US approaches to settling the Arab-Israeli conflict. They argue further that the sale might sweeten Saudi attitudes toward the possible American use of Saudi military facilities.
Whatever approach the administration finally decides on, it will require an enormous amount of quiet diplomacy aimed at both the Congress and the Saudis. Administration officials say that too much public discussion of any modification in current plans might sour the Saudis on the deal. Under the Saudi system, important and delicate matters are often handled discreetly and through a long and quiet process of consensus making. Under the US system, debate on such matters is often loud and open.
Meanwhile, the congressional coalition now shaping up against sale of the giant radar planes has become a formidable one. In addition to the usual supporters of Israel, it includes one significant group of senators and congressmen concerned with arms control and another concerned with the transfer of US high technology to foreign nations.
A majority of both houses is required to defeat the sale.
The administration apparently hopes to mollify some of the pro-Israel supporters with promises of compensation for Israel. According to the current issue of the biweekly report Middle East Policy Survey, Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. gained approval, before his recent Middle East trip, for an additional $600 million in grant military aid to Israel. On top of this, the report says, the administration will increase the grant portion of Israel's regular military aid program by $250 million in the fiscal years 1983 and 1984. Consideration is also being given to US purchases of Israeli-made military hardware, such as spare parts and electronic equipment.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska, the Republican whip, expressed one element of concern now emerging in the debate over the subject when he told Aerospace Daily that he could not support the AWACS sale unless the Saudis take a role in mutual security for the Middle East and soften their "anti-Israel" position. A former pilot, the senator also said that he resented the implication that Saudi oil is so important to the US that it must go along with the sale. The Saudis supply the US with more than 20 percent of its imported oil.
Resistance to the sale has reached the point where most counts list 53 senators as against it. But it is too early for such counts to be significant, some congressional staff members say, because the administration has yet to begin its lobbying effort. One said, however, that "53 phone calls" from President Reagan himself may be what it takes in the end to assure the sale.