A few U.S. warplanes "could just devastate" any Soviet attempt to take over Iran's oil fields with airborne troops, the nation's top military officer said yesterday.
Gen. David C. Jones gave this assessment to the Senate Armed Services Committee during generally friendly questioning on his nomination to another two-year term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The committee voted 16 to 1 to recommend to the Senate that Jones be confirmed, with Sen. Gordon J. Humphrey (R-N.H.) opposed.
During the hearing, the four-star general repeatedly denied articles in The Washington Star asserting that he had made a deal to resign if Ronald Reagan is elected president this November.
Jones said the law provides that he serve at the pleasure of the president and that he intends to abide by the law. "Any action at any time would have to come at the initiative of the president," he said.
"It would be totally inappropriate to establish a precedent" for a chairman to resign under an advance agreement and "would move toward politicizing the military," Jones added.
His comments about stopping a Soviet airborne attack against Iranian oil fields came during questioning by Sen. Harry F. Byrd (Ind-Va.).
Although the Soviets do have an airborne division positioned in their Transcaucasla region northeast of Iran, Jones said it would be a difficult hop from there to the Iranian oil fields, about 1,000 miles to the south at the head of the Persian Gulf.
"It would be an easy operation to interdict," said the Air Force general. "A few AWACS" -- airborne warning and control system aircraft -- "and a few fighters could just devastate an airborne operation."
Despite the military obstacles, Soviet forces pose "a substantial threat and have a very substantial capability to invade Iran," Jones said.
In addition to the airborne division, the Soviets have a motorized rifle division in the Transcaucasia area, he told the committee. How much the Soviets could accomplish in Iran would depend on what the United States and Persian Gulf countries did in reponse, he said.
Even though the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan indicates a more agressive stance and poses a threat to Iran, Jones said he still favors implementing the strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT II) limiting the super-powers' weapons.
"SALT II is in our best interest" as "a modest and useful" step toward controlling the U.S.-Soviet strategic arms race, Jones said.
"I am concerned that if SALT II is not followed, that the Soviet breakout can be much larger than ours," he said. "Breakout," in this context, means hurriedly building and deploying a lot of weapons that would be banned under SALT II.
"It's a separate issue whether it should be brought up for ratification," Jones said in discussing the timing of SALT II, pending before the Senate.
"But I have a deep personal conviction that SALT II would still be in our best interest."
Pressed by several senators to concede that the United States has slipped from a position of "strategic equivalence" to inferiority in regard to the Soviets, Jones would go no further than saying the country was "on the edge of strategic inferiority."
He said he did not want to give his counterpart in the Soviet Union any comfort by specifying where the Soviets might enjoy military superiority.
Praise for Jones came from both Democrats and Republicans, with Sen. John Culver (D-Iowa) complaining that members of Congress whom he did not identify had tried to use Jones to make political attacks on civilian decisions.
"A man of integrity and a man of ability," Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) called Jones. "He has done a good job and will continue to do a good job."
"What I like about Gen. Jones," said Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), "is that when his commander gave him an order, he saluted and said, 'Yes sir.'
"I respect the general for obeying an order he didn't agree with," Goldwater said in an apparent reference to President Carter's cancellation of the B1 bomber in 1977 over Jones' protests.
Humphrey asked Jones what he would do if he found himself serving under a president "who was weakening our defenses."
Jones said it would depend on the circumstances. The general noted that defense budgets after allowing for inflation had declined between 1969 and 1978, which presented the chiefs with "the opportunity to persuade" civilian superiors to reverse that trend.
His responsibility as chairman is to present the military's case as effectively as he can before the president makes a decision, said Jones, and support it afterward.
"I don't go around behind the scenes and try to get that decision overthrown," he said.