An AWACS is a complex and sophisticated weapons system. It is acronym for airborne Warning and Control System. The system is built around a modified Boening 707-320B aircraft which is fitted with a rotating dome antenna. It is capable of "seeing" objects on the ground as much as 250 miles away and of "seeing" things in the air at greater distances. It is believed to be the world's most advanced aerial reconnaissance plane. So far as Western experts know it is well ahead of anything in the Soviet arsenal. At the moment the US Air Force has all that exist.
AWACS have been sold to the NATO allies and will be delivered to them later. None has yet been delivered to them or to any foreign government.
four AWACS planes are now operating out of airfields in Saudi Arabia. They wer sent there when the Iraq-Iran war broke out. There was concern that Iranian planes might try to bomb Saudi oil fields. The four are manned and operated by US Air Force personnel.
On April 1 the National Security Council met in Washington to consider whether to sell five AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis had asked for these aircraft during the Carter administration. During the interregnum the Carter White House was ready to announce that it had approved the sale. On request from the Reagan transition team the announcement was held up. The Defense Department favored conclusion of the sale.
During the April 1 meeting Secretary of State Alexander Haig warned that the Israelis would probably object to the proposal. He was overruled and President Reagan the next day confirmed the decision to proceed. Mr. Haig's warning has been justified by subsequent events. The Israelis do object --vigorously.
The five AWACS planes were to have been added to a package of military weapons to be sold to Saudi Arabia. The pre-April 1 package consisted of 62 F- 15 fighter bombers, given increased range with fuel pods and increased fighting power with improved Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. These missiles would permit an F-15 to aim at targets below or above as well as around. The April 1 meeting also approved selling seven KC-135 tanker planes in order to give increased range both to the F-15 and to the AWACS planes.
Previous to April 1 there had been an understanding reached between the Reagan administration and Israel. It was worked out during a Washington visit by Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir. After that visit it was announced that Israel would be offered 15 more f-15s (in addition to 40 already in the pipeline) at especially favorable terms. It was reported from Israel at that time that while Israel disliked the idea of 62 of the same type planes going to Saudi Arabia and being given long-range capability, nevertheless Israel would not "activate" its pro-israel lobby in the US on the issue.
That is where things stood until April 1. Israel grumbled but did not mobilize the lobby. The Saudis presumably were on the way to the 62 planes with fuel pods and Sidewinters.
But the moment Israel learned of the decision to add the AWACS to the package a storm blew up. The pro-Israel lobby was activated. By April 7 more than a hundred members of the House of Representatives had been mobilized to protest the sale to Saudi Arabia. By this past week 48 members of the Senate were said to have signed up -- twice the number said to be willing to support the President.
The purpose of selling the new weapons to Saudi Arabia is, according to the State Department to check a "serious deterioration" in the security interests of the US and its alies in the Middle East. It is part of a plan under which the US would establish a "strategic presence" of its own as well as seek to build a defense community of countries in the area. Planners hoped to be able to get Israel and the Arab countries to put aside their differences for the sake of a larger common interest.
The idea of selling five AWACS control planes to any foreign country is controversial, particularly to any country outside the NATO alliance. The Middle East is unstable. The experience with Iran raises doubts about selling in the latest and most sophisiticated US weapons to any country in the area.
In spite of Israeli objections President Reagan has confirmed his intention to go through with the entire package of new weapons to the Saudis. This was announced on April 21. Two days earlier the Saudi oil minister, Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, declared that his country had been promised the five planes and expects to get them. At the same time on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sheikh Yamani declared that OPEC oil prices have gone too high and that his country will continue to overproduce oil until OPEC lowers i ts prices.