Washington (Oct. 1)
Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger said that despite fears expressed by members of Congress that sophisticated American military equipment might fall into unfriendly hands if the AWACS reconnaissance aircraft and other advanced U.S. weaponry are sold to Saudi Arabia, there is no way to guarantee the loss of such equipment whether in American hands or in the hands of countries to which the U.S. sells arms.
Weinberger also warned that if the Senate rejects the $8.5 billion military package sale to Saudi Arabia, it will adversely affect the national interests of both the U.S. and Israel.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Monday in the first Congressional public hearing on the AWACS sale, both Weinberger and committee chairman Sen. John Tower (R. Tex.) said the issue has become “emotional” and urged the Senators to keep an open mind. Also testifying was Air Force Gen. David Jones, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Questioned repeatedly about the security of American weapons in Saudi Arabia, Weinberger said there would always be a risk wherever weapons are sold and that the U.S. cannot allow this to “paralyze” it in making decisions on whether to sell arms to foreign countries. “We lost weapons in Iran. We lost weapons in Vietnam,” Weinberger said.
But in his prepared testimony, the Defense Secretary noted that “the Saudis have an outstanding record of protecting sensitive U.S. equipment and information and the Saudis recognize and accept the need for special safeguards in this case. Consequently, they have agreed to extensive, jointly planned and monitored security arrangements that satisfy stringent U.S. requirements for the safeguarding of our equipment.”
ADVERSE EFFECTS IF SALE IS REJECTED
Weinberger also rejected the repeated charge by members of Congress that the Saudi regime is unstable. He said the regime in Saudi Arabia, unlike Iran, has not distanced itself from its people and its modernization efforts are being undertaken with the cooperation of the religious authorities in Saudi Arabia. He said the Reagan Administration would not allow the Saudi regime to fall, as did the Shah of Iran. He did not elaborate.
In warning of the effect of a Congressional rejection of the sale, Weinberger declared,” There can be little doubt that future U.S.-Saudi relations would be very adversely affected.” He said “such a rejection would cause the Saudis to doubt the reliability of U.S. commitments and the ability of American Presidents to conduct foreign policy.”
He added that it would also “make it far less likely that Saudi Arabia and others will agree to the kind of security cooperation, joint planning, combined exercises and advanced preparation for sharing facilities and supplies which we feel are needed if the U.S. is to defend shared security interests in southwest Asia. Furthermore, rejection of the sale would confirm a too widely held opinion in the Middle East that the U.S. is solely concerned with the wishes of the Israeli government to the exclusion of all other interests,” Weinberger said.
He said he believed that Israel’s long term interests would also be damaged by rejection. He noted that Israel would benefit from the strengthened military capability the AWACS would bring to the U.S. in the region. He said Israel would be affected by a “continuing, perhaps unneeded hostility” toward it by the Saudis and other Arab countries and by the fact that the Saudis would almost certainly buy the British “Nimrod” which, according to Gen. Jones, is almost as good as the AWACS.
Weinberger and Jones repeatedly stressed that the AWACS will not be a threat to Israel. Jones said the Saudis would be “foolhardy” to use them in any way that would threaten Israel.
Both Pentagon officials stressed that the AWACS will not be sent to Saudi Arabia before 1985, the American crews will have to train Saudis for at least another five years and that American technicians and ground crews will be necessary for the foreseeable future.
Jones, who claimed close ties with the Israel Air Force, said he could not understand why the Israelis were opposed to the AWACS sale. That opinion was shared by Sen. Strom Thurmond (R. S. C.) who said he favored the sale. “I don’t understand why Mr. Begin opposes the sale. He would be wise to recommend the sale,” Thurmond said.
In their briefings, which included a slide presentation, Weinberger and Jones stressed that the AWACS’ equipment represented 1960s technology and that while it is now superior to anything the Soviets have, they will have something similar to it by the time the AWACS are delivered to the Saudis.
“I’m a little amused listening to this briefing,” said Sen. Henry Jackson (D. Wash.) a leading opponent of the AWACS deal. “I get the impression that this is a pile of junk.” Jackson and other Senators noted that Jones had stressed the sophistication of the AWACS when the Pentagon first sought funds to build them.
Jones said he was a strong supporter of the AWACS and felt they were needed in Europe by NATO. The type to be sold to Saudi Arabia has less equipment but would meet the needs there, he said. He explained that this need is to protect the oil fields and to allow Saudi equipment and bases to be integrated with U.S. forces in the area if the need were to arise.
Gen. P. X. Kelley, Assistant Commander of the U.S. Marine Corps and a former commander of the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, maintained that no country is more important to the free world than Saudi Arabia. He said there must be a “free and willing relationship” with the Saudis in order to be able to use their territory and equipment to meet any threat to the Persian Gulf area.
Jones denied the contention of some Senators that it was the U.S. not the Saudis who proposed the AWACS sale. Jones said that two AWACS were first sent to Saudi Arabia for 45 days in March, 1979 after fighting broke out between north and south Yemen. He said that in October, 1980, four U.S. AWACS were sent to Saudi Arabia after the outbreak of the Iraqi-Iranian war and those planes are still there. Jones said that last November, the Saudis asked to buy their own AWACS. He denied that the U.S. had proposed the sale.
He said he believed that after the Saudis receive the five AWACS in the sales package, the four under U.S. ownership will continue to be based there.