If you are one of those people who can't fine-tune a television set, you have to see an AWACS to believe it -- and to begin to grasp the complexity of the developing debate over the Reagan administration's proposal to sell AWACS to Saudi Arabia.
To start with, an AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) is strictly speaking not an aircraft. It's what's inside an aircraft called the E3A Sentry, which is nothing more than a converted, souped-up Boeing 707 with what looks (and revolves) like a giant Frisbee attached roughly amidships on top of the fuselage.
When you've seen one, you've seen them all, I thought, until the Air Force colonel invited me to inspect the interior of an E3A parked on the edge of a runway at the Tactical Fighter Weapons Center here in the desert outside Las Vegas. That's when the electronically untutored mind reels, as you squeeze through passageways lined with computer banks, data processors and television consoles.
A fully equipped AWACS has a crew of 17, including 14 highly skilled technicians. It is a flying radar (the revolving rotodome makes six 360-degree turns a minute) with a range of 250 miles. But it is also a $150 million airborne data-processing system, able to sort out friend from foe and give air commanders push-button, microphone control over all kinds of aerial activity -- reconnaissance, fighter interception, air strikes and all the rest.
In our war game here at Nellis, 134 "friendlies" fought off 274 "enemies" with help from two AWACS picking up the opposing aircraft and vectoring (directing) "friendly" fighters on the correct course for interception. That's roughly how many aircraft an AWACS can keep track of second-by-second at any time.
What's inside, then, counts for everything. And that's why the critical question for Congress: when the administration launches its AWACS sales campaign right after Labor Day, is unlikely to be an all-or-nothing proposition. It is more likely to come down to the question of just how much of which particular kinds of super-sophisticated high technology should be turned over to the Saudis -- and under how much continuing American supervision.
The Israeli answer is to give them nothing, or at least a bare minimum -- and certainly nothing that could provide Saudi Arabia with the ability to give early warning of Israeli air movements to, let us say, Syria or Iraq, or allow the Saudis to direct some future pan-Arabic air operation against Israel. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger has publicly acknowledged that AWACS could be used by Saudi Arabia for at least some of these purposes. Israeli security aside other opponents question Saudi Arabia's long-term stability (the first of five Saudi AWACS wouldn't be delivered until 1985 if the deal goes through) and the implications for American security if AWACS technology should somehow fall into Soviet hands.
The Pentagon's preference is to give the Saubis the whole works. Here the sales ptich gets delicate. Ideally, the Air Force would like to go on flying its own four AWACS over Saudi air space. Their availability is regarded as vital to the workings of any rapid deployment force in the Persian Gulf.
But those American AWACS fly at the pleasure of the Saudis. And it is the pleasure of the proud House of Saud to replace them as quicly as possible with AWACS bearing the royal crest.
That being so, the Air Force would like the Saudi AWACS to be equipped with everything the U.S. AWACS now have, and even a little bit more. The Saudi-owned AWACS, in short, are counted on by the Pentagon as an integral part of the future American presence in the Persian Gulf. If push comes to shove, the Air Force wants enough Americans on the scene working with the Saudis to guarantee the availability of the Saudi AWACS for intergrated operations with American aircraft.
But this part of the Pentagon argument is not something that can be safely labored out loud. To the extent that it offends Saudi nationalism it invites the cry of "Western imperialism."
So this not going to be an easy issue even to debate publicly -- let alone to resolve to the satisfaction of all concerned. It will come down in the end to a haggle over high technology. Even a brief inspection of an AWACS' interior makes it clear that there's a lot more to haggle about than meets the unpracticed eye.