The Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft that the Reagan administration is struggling to sell to Saudi Arabia against still Senate oppositin is less of a marvel than is generally supposed, according to a former Pentagon official and radar specialist.
In fact, Israel has no fear of AWACS and Saudi Arabia has no need of it, asserts this source, who insisted on anonymity.
The Israelis know they can "fairly easily" jam its radar and appreciate that lengthy maintenance is needed to keep it aloft, he maintains. (Gen. David Jones , chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, conceded that "the Israelis are very good at jamming," when testifying on AWACS before the Senate Armed Services Committee Sept. 28.)
These assertions, if correct, cast doubts on Israel's assertion that AWACS is a dire threat to Israeli security and raise questions about the aircraft's usefulness to NATO.
The Saudis, the source adds, would be better off using a mix of ground-based radars and radar picket ships than buying AWACS.
According to the former Pentagon official, the vulnerability of AWACS to electronic countermeasures (ECM) was demonstrated during a test off SEattle in 1977 when a Navy EA-6B prowler successfully jammed its radar. The prowler detected the AWACS aircraft before being detected itself and effectively neutralized it with a jamming device. The EA-6B then guided two fighters right up to the unsuspecting aircraft, the source adds.
The Air Force has confirmed that the test took place but refuses to discuss it. Navy officials, both in Washington and at Whidbey Island naval air station near Seattle where EA-6Bs are based, deny any knowledge of such an encounter.
But an expert familiar with the capabilities of the EA-6B says of the alleged jamming, "It wouldn't be surprising. That's what the prowler's for. It should be able to jam any form of ground or airborne radar."
An AWACS expert, however, brands the former Pentagon official's assertion "a total fabrication," declaring it to be "inconceivable" that an EA-6B Prowler could inflict such humiliation on a sophisticated radar plane. Nevertheless, while stressing that the Westinghouse radar aboard AWACS is "inherently jam-resistant," he does concede that an enemy bent on disabling it could probably do so -- particularly with noise jammers.
"There's not much you can do against brute-force noise jamming," observes the ex-Pentagon official interviewed by the Monitor, who insists that both Israel and the Soviet Union can jam the radar aboard AWACS aircraft. "Nothing's been done to strengthen its electronic counter-countermeasures [ECCM] and we've been feeding our ECM expertise to the Israelis for years," he says.
None of the five AWACS planes earmarked for Saudi Arabia are to carry EC or ECCM gear. They also will be extremely susceptible to communications jamming. "The Israelis are not worried by AWACS at all," declares the radar specialist. "They have all the technology necessary to defeat it."
The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee asserts that a Saudi AWACS "flying well within Arab air space" would be able to monitor air activity in Israel. But those who favor selling the radar planes retort that AWACS would have to fly over the Israeli-occupied West Bank to do so because the Jordanian mountains mask nearly all of Israel.
Other critics of the sale assert that the Royal Saudi Air Force could use AWACS, a converted Boeing 707-320b, to coordinate an Arab air assault on Israel. But Anthony H. Cordesman of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars here maintains that it would take other Arab air forces a minimum of two to three years training "to make proper use of AWACS" and would require "the replacement of many of their current aircraft or massive refits" to take advantage of its capabilities. Such training and reequipment, he points out, could easily be detected.
The ability of the radar aboard AWACS to "look down" and separate targets from what are known as "ground clutter returns" sets it apart from other radars which are confused by such signals emitted from the terrain.
But some doubt the extent to which it can perform such a task. The ex-Pentagon official asserts that in the mountainous terrain of Europe, for example, low-flying aircraft would be indistinguishable from ground clutter returns. He adds, moreover, that when an AWACS plane was tested near Frankfurt, West Germany, it picked up fast-moving vehicles on a nearby autobahn and proclaimed them to be low-flying aircraft.
NATO is to receive a total of 18 AWACS aircraft. The first will enter service in February 1982. Unlike those that would go to Saudi Arabia, the NATO AWACS will be equipped with both ECM and ECCM features.
Apart from being able to spot attacking enemy aircraft -- at 175 nautical miles where low-flying fighter aircraft are concerned -- AWACS carries the command, control, and communications gear necessary to manage air battles.
This capability will be greatly enhanced when US and NATO AWACS get the so-called joint tactical information distribution system, a high-speed, jam-resistant digital data link for secure communications, beginning in 1983.
But the ability of AWACS to control fighters in combat came in for scathing criticism last week. "This is another over-complex, electronic war-gaming obsession of the Pentagon," declared defense writer Alexander Cockburn in the Wall STreet Journal.
Mr. Cockburn also asserted that AWACS breaks down a lot. According to the ex-Pentagon radar specialist, it is only fully mission capable 37 percent of the time. Indeed, Richard Allen, President Reagan's assistant for national security affairs, conceded recently that in order to keep one AWACS continuously in the air, a total of five aircraft are needed.
It is the contention of the ex-Pentagon radar specialist that AWACS was "never intended to be used against sophisticated enemies." Having been rejected for its original role, that of warning against Soviet bomber assault on the US, it was reborn as a mobile air defense system for use in undeveloped areas of the world, he asserts. In order to ensure a longer production run and keep down the cost per plane, he alleges, the Air Force foisted AWACS on NATO, where its chief function, he maintains, will be to fill gaps left by ground radar coverage.
Replies a source familiar with AWACS: "This guy is so far off, it's unbelievable."