The plane that didn't shoot

EVER since the United States frigate Stark was hit by a missile fired from an Iraqi plane (by mistake) on May 17, there have been questions about the behavior of Saudi Arabian aircraft during the incident. The Iraqi plane which fired the missile was spotted by an American-built AWACS (airborne warning and control system) plane based in Saudi Arabia. Also, there was a Saudi F-15 in the air that, in theory, might possibly have done something to protect the Stark from what happened.

The fact that the Saudi plane did not attack the Iraqi plane was cited by senators and congressmen during the debate, which took place soon after, over the Reagan administration's proposal to sell 1,600 Maverick air-to-ground missiles to Saudi Arabia.

The allegation that the Saudi plane had not attacked the Iraqi plane was used frequently as an argument for not allowing the proposed sale of more weapons to the Saudis. Both the AWACS and the F-15 planes involved in the affair are American-built and were supplied under previous legislation.

What was not mentioned by those opposing the sale of more United States weapons to the Saudis is that both the AWACS and the F-15 planes were operating on that day, as always, under stiff restraints written into the original deal to try to pacify Israeli opposition.

The story goes back to 1981 and the first really bruising political battle of the Reagan administration with Congress.

The new administration, scarcely three months in office, announced officially on April 21 that it was proposing to sell Saudi Arabia a package of new weapons worth $8.5 billion.

The package was to include five AWACS planes, seven refueling tanker planes, an unspecified number of air-to-air missiles, and 62 fuel tanks for the F-15 fighters the Saudis had already received.

But because Israel was vociferously opposing the deal those extra fuel tanks were cut down in size. The Saudis were not given the tanks that American F-15s carry, but smaller ones with less range. Other restrictions were added. The Saudis may not use for military purposes their own bases near Israel. Americans will be aboard the AWACS planes at least until 1990. The F-15 fighters must not operate outside the airspace of Saudi Arabia itself. The US verifies the restraints.

In other words, the Saudi F-15 that did not shoot on May 17 was not shooting because of specific restraints placed upon it by the US in its effort to placate Israel.

Israel was not placated by the restrictions. It did its utmost to persuade the Congress to veto the sale. The House did vote, overwhelmingly, against the sale. The battle then centered on the Senate. It raged all summer. It was the big news story of that first year of the Reagan administration. The President used his powers of persuasion to the limit. He won, on Oct. 28.

The vote was 77 to 23. Saudi Arabia received the five AWACS planes, with their American crews, and the short-range fuel tanks, and all the other limitations.

On May 17 of this year that Saudi F-15 could not have pursued the Iraqi plane without violating the restrictions that were placed on it, and probably would have required the longer-range fuel tanks that were not sold to Saudi Arabia.

That was the last battle the Reagan administration won against the pro-Israel lobby. Sen. Charles Percy of Illinois had led the AWACS battle in the Senate for the President. Senator Percy came up for reelection in 1984. He was targeted by the same lobby. He was defeated.

This month, on June 17, the administration withdrew its proposal to sell 1,600 Maverick missiles to Saudi Arabia. The President was in Venice at the time. He concurred. He had no choice. Howard Baker, who knows the Senate well, told him he would lose. The pro-Israel lobby was in command.

The sale of the 1,600 Mavericks was to help round out the President's plan for protecting shipping in the Gulf. The plan calls for American use of those five AWACS, for use of Saudi air bases, and for refueling facilities. Without Saudi cooperation it is going to be difficult indeed to provide adequate air cover for the ships the President is proposing to put into the Gulf.

Meanwhile, it goes down in the books that the Israeli lobby first made sure that the plane-that-didn't-shoot, couldn't shoot, and then that it used the fact it didn't shoot to deny to the Saudis the new weapons they needed to help execute the President's plan.

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