Arab AWACS: the view from the technical side
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.
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.