The United States is sending a mobile ground radar station, more communications equipment and another 96 airmen to Saudi Arabia to bolster further that country's air defenses and help back up the four big radar early warning planes and 300 U.S. airmen sent last week.

This latest U.S. action to strengthen the ability of this country's largest oil supplier to ward off any air attack should the war between Iraq and Iran widen was revealed in general terms yesterday by Defense Secretary Harold Brown on "Issues and Answers" (ABC, WJLA).

Though Brown only mentioned "possibly" sending ground radar to the Saudis, other defense officials said privately that the first planeloads of equipment left from Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico on Saturday and that the airlift, involving at least one giant C5A transport and several slightly smaller C141 jet transports, would continue for a few days, with the new station set to be in operation by Wednesday.

Brown sought to play down the prospect that the U.S. planes, airmen or equipment might wind up being attacked in the fighting and that these shipments, as some have cautioned, might escalate the chances of the United States becoming involved in the war.

The defense chief said "it depends on whether you believe an attack is deterred by military capability or by the absence of military capability." Brown said he believed that by making the U.S. committment clear, the chances of the conflict spreading is reduced.

Asked what the U.S. commitment to Saudi Arabia is, should that nation be attacked, Brown said the question was hypothetical but that "there is no doubt in my mind that we have a commitment both to keep open the Strait of Hormuz," the vital waterway through which all Persian Gulf oil passes, and "to keep access to nonbeligerents in the region open." U.S. arrangements with Saudi Arabia were such that those commitments should be taken "very, very seriously," he said.

The defense secretary pointed out that the U.S. radar planes will remain well inside Saudi territory and could move away from any potential attack on them. He offered assurances that the United States would defend the planes if necessary with Navy jets on carriers in the Arabian Sea, but the main thrust of Brown's remarks were aimed at toning down the likihood of spreading conflict.

Brown pointed out statements of the warring parties and others that they would try and keep the war from spreading. Morever, he noted, closing the 26-mile-wide strait is not in the interests of anyone and Iran lacks the technical capacity to do so in any event. Iran has said it does not intend to block the strait.

Iran, however, has made some general threats to Gulf countries, warning them against helping Iraq. The U.S. equipment is meant to provide warning to the Saudis of any Iranian air attack so Saudi defenses could try and intercept the raiders.

The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud Faisal, described those Iranian threats as "very unproductive" during an appearance yesterday on "Face the Nation" (CBS, WDVM). His country took those threats seriously, he said, but stressed, that, above all else, a calm approach was needed in the area. Under questioning, the prince said Saudi Arabia had responsibilities as a member of the Arab League and that if Iran attacked another Gulf country, the Saudis would help defend that other country.

Sources say a U.S. military survey team arrived in Saudi Arabia, soon after the airbone warning and control system (AWACS) planes landed last week, to look into what else the Saudis needed. The new ground radar can be moved around to different locations and sources said it could eventually take the place of the AWACS planes. Sources said, however, that any decision to withdraw the planes would be largely up to the Saudis.

Brown also took the opportunity yesterday to provide a vigorous defense of overall U.S. combat readiness in the face of widespread criticism that American forces are not in shape to fight.

Asked about reports that six out of 10 U.S-based Army divisions and seven of 13 aircraft carriers are not ready and that half the Air Force's fighter squadrons cannot fly because of a lack of spare parts, Brown insisted that U.S. military capability is clearly better today than it was four or five years ago.

He called the carrier report "a simple charge," claiming that the United States has always had a carrier in overhaul and another in training for every one deployed. He said five carriers are now in overhaul and another two are in port tol allow crews time ashore. These two ships could be remanned and at sea in a matter of days, he said. He also said the Navy had 68 ships needing overhaul when he came to office and that had been reduced to 20 today.

Brown said part of the decreased readiness is accounted for by higher standards that have been imposed to measure readiness. He said the Soviets only keep about 15 percent of their ships at sea, far lower than U.S. deployment levels, and only about one-third of Soviet army divisions are ready by U.S. standards.

Brown also rejected criticism that the new U.S. rapid deployment force is only a paper tiger.He pointed to the powerful U.S. fleet in the Arabian Sea, the recent deployment of Phantom jets to Egypt, the dispatch of supply ships for Marine brigades to the Indian Ocean and new base arrangements in the region as signs that the Pentagon had made "a pretty good beginning" in being able to put forces near the Persian Gulf.

Brown said it was "important that people recognize our strengths because if military capability is incorrectly stated and perceived to be poor," then the United States would fail in its primary objective of deterring war. "Let's not fool or denigrate ourselves. Our forces are ready to fight," he said.

Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga), however, sharply disagreed. In an appearance on "Meet the Press" (NBC, WRC) yesterday, Nunn said the United States does not have either the quantity or quality in its military manpower to meet current defense commitments.