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The case of the missing fuel tanks

A DIFFERENCE of opinion between me and several readers over fuel tanks for Saudi Air Force fighter planes has led me into a search for more information. Here are the results. In 1978 the government of Saudi Arabia asked the Carter administration in Washington for authority to purchase a wide range of United States weapons. Most of it was turned down. Protests by Israel put an effective block in the way of the project.

In 1981 the Saudi government renewed its request. The Reagan administration agreed to go ahead. There was widespread opposition in the Congress, triggered by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). President Reagan launched a massive counter-lobbying effort and finally secured a narrow and reluctant clearance of the project in the Senate. The vote was 52 to 48.

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The package cleared by that vote included five AWACS (airborne warning and control system) planes, various ground-to-air weapons, and 101 sets of ``conformal'' fuel tanks to give extra range to the Saudis' arsenal of 62 F-15 fighter planes.

In a letter to the Senate and in private statements to various committees of the Congress and to the Israelis, the Reagan administration agreed to place various limits on the Saudi use of US weapons.

The AWACS planes must stay inside Saudi airspace and must have Americans in their crews ``at least to 1990.'' (They are still flown by US crews, plus a single Saudi.) The fighter planes are to be delivered without bomb racks and must be based on the northeastern side of Saudi Arabia, not in the northwest near Israel.

The 1981 agreement provided for those extra fuel tanks but, according to the Saudis, none of the tanks they ordered at that time have ever been delivered. Several spokesmen for Israel have insisted that the Saudis do have those extra tanks.

The Saudis say that in 1984 they were sent ``a few'' of these tanks, but ``on loan''; hence they do not count them as being their property.

This version checks out at the Pentagon, but with a twist. The Pentagon says that it sent 12 sets of the extra ``conformal tanks'' ``in advance'' on future delivery of the 1981 order. But why only 12 on an order for 101 which had been placed and authorized in 1981?

The Pentagon news office explained that the assembly line that produced the tanks had been shut down before 1981 and had not been in operation since. ``Why?'' ``Technical difficulties.''

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I then checked this out at the offices of McDonnell Douglas, manufacturers of the F-15 planes. I was told that the ``conformal tanks'' were not manufactured by McDonnell Douglas in its US plants, but had been built in Israel. The company added that it was making some now in its US plants. Was it making deliveries to the Saudis from this new production line? Well, no. Why? Well, this is under negotiation.

The 1984 delivery of the 12 sets of extra tanks was part of a special emergency decision by the President. Iran had begun sending fighter planes into that part of the Gulf which had been declared by the Arab Gulf states to be a ``protected zone.'' The Saudis asked urgently for a special package to include Stinger ground-to-air weapons, plus a KC-10 tanker for aerial refueling, and the extra fuel tanks.

Israel protested against the sale on May 24. The President authorized the immediate delivery on May 29. The KC-10 and the Stingers arrived on May 30. On June 5 two Iranian fighters entered the ``protected zone,'' and were met and shot down by two Saudi F-15s that had been refueled by the KC-10 tanker.

Both Saudis and Israelis are correct in their contrary assertions about the extra tanks. The Saudis to this day have not received a single one from their 1981 order.

But thanks to President Reagan, and over vigorous Israeli protest, they did get the 12 ``in advance'' or ``on loan'' - as you prefer.

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