Some U.S. officials and other Middle East specialists are concerned that the failure of the United States to meet major arms requests this past year from two of its traditional Arab allies, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, is likely to have serious adverse military and political implications for Washington in the years to come, particularly in the Persian Gulf region.
Also likely to be affected adversely, these analysts argue, is Israel.
For the first time, Saudi Arabia will obtain from Britain an attack aircraft, the Tornado, and other advanced aviation electronics that Washington has traditionally refused to sell. Furthermore, the British are providing the airplane without restrictions on where the Saudis base it or how they use it such as the Americans had imposed on the F15 the United States previously sold to Sauidi Arabia. So the Tornado can be based in Tabuk in northwestern Saudi Arabia, only 120 miles from Israel.
Pro-Israeli groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) take the view the Saudis eventually would have bought the Tornado -- or perhaps the French Mirage 2000 -- in any case, and that Israel's security interests are still better served by denying Saudi Arabia any more American-made F15s, which is a superior aircraft, they argue, to either the Tornado or Mirage.
Hyman H. Bookbinder, Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee, described the British decision to sell Saudi Arabia the Tornado as "an unhappy development" resulting in an enemy of Israel obtaining "a significant new dimension to its arsenal."
"It's a defeat for what we want," he said, explaining that the pro-Israeli lobby here was faced with a dilemma, seeing Israel's enemies purchase sophisticated weapons from other Western countries every time it succeeded in blocking U.S. arms sales to them.
While he said he saw "no better alternative" than denying Saudi Arabia more F15s, Bookbinder said he hoped developments in the peace process would allow a proposed U.S. arms-sale package for Jordan to go forward so that King Hussein would not follow the Saudi example and buy from another arms supplier.
Some U.S. officials said they fear that the U.S. failure to sell advanced aircraft and other weapons to the Saudis will affect the Saudis willingness to continue cooperating closely with the United States on matters such as contingency planning and the U.S. use of Saudi bases in a Persian Gulf crisis.
"They [Saudi Arabia and Jordan] don't count as much in U.S. strategic thinking as in 1981," said William Quandt, a Middle East specialist who served on the National Security Council staff during the administration of President Jimmy Carter. In 1981, the administration conducted a major campaign to convince Congress to approve the sale of Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) radar reconnaissance planes to Saudi Arabia.
By contrast, the administration quietly let it be known to the Saudis in July that they should not count on buying 40 more F15s from the United States. It has also put off until next year a decision on whether, and when, to submit to Congress a Saudi request to buy less than a billion dollars worth of other U.S. arms.
The administration also put up no fight this fall to overcome congressional opposition to the $1.6 billion Jordanian arms package it unveiled in late September, despite its argument that Congress' failure to approve it might "fatally damage" the troubled Mideast peace process.
"It's seen as another example of the United States not being able to back up its assurances of support to a moderate Arab leader," said a senior Defense Department official. "They [the moderate Arabs] are questioning the whole ability of the United States to be a reliable partner."
Jordan's King Hussein has made known his disappointment with the Reagan administration in recent interviews with American journalists. Saudi Arabia has adopted an extremely low profile in Washington, reflected in the refusal of Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, to meet with a Washington Post reporter or other American journalists even on a background basis for the last several months. Bandar was directly involved in the negotiations with Britain for the sale of the Tornadoes.
Administration officials said the White House intends to try to go ahead with the Jordanian arms sale in March, but pro-Israeli groups have already laid plans to attempt to derail the sale once again. They also said the administration will submit a vastly reduced arms request for Saudi Arabia sometime in 1986 but no decision has been taken as to when.
Other moderate Arab states have followed Saudi Arabia's lead by turning to European arms suppliers. Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have chosen the French Mirage 2000 aircraft over U.S.-made fighters. Oman chose the Tornado over an advanced American jet even before the Saudis did.
In the past 18 months, only Bahrain among the Persian Gulf Arab states has chosen an American plane, the older F5Es made by the Northrop Corp., over its French and British competitors.
The Saudi decision to buy Tornadoes "may complete the virtual exclusion of the U.S. from the Gulf market for major air, naval and land systems," said Anthony H. Cordesman, a Middle East arms analyst.
He said the total Saudi purchase from Britain now includes 72 Tornado fighters, 30 Hawk light attack trainers and 30 PC9 trainers, or a total of 132 aircraft, including 48 Tornado IDS attack aircraft.
Cordesman, who is close to the Jordanian and Saudi governments, argued that the United States will suffer in strategic and financial terms from the new pattern in Saudi arms purchases.
"The main strategic risks are the erosion of U.S. military relations with Saudi Arabia and the loss of interoperable bases, forces and equipment" for the U.S. Air Force in the kingdom, Cordesman said. Pentagon officials concurred with this judgment.
Cordesman calculated that the United States has lost not only $2.7 billion in the immediate sale of an additional 40 F15s but also $3 billion to $6 billion in follow-on support sales for the aircraft. In addition, he said he believes it is "extremely unlikely" that the Saudis will seek a U.S. replacement for their older, U.S.-provided F5Es and will turn again to Europe for an aircraft involving a Saudi outlay of $7 billion to $14 billion.
If so, the United States stands to lose at least $12 billion, and possibly more than $20 billion, in cash sales of aircraft, Cordesman said. The Saudis have also decided not to buy American tanks and have turned to West Germany to set up a $3 billion tank and howitzer ammunition factory.
Pro-Israeli groups, such as AIPAC, argued the Saudis intended to buy a British or French aircraft anyway because they wanted an attack aircraft they could station at their big base at Tabuk. The United States had always placed restrictions on the basing of the F15s there.
They also argued that the Saudi policy of diversifying its arms purchases was an ongoing one and that the Saudis had spent $3 billion on French naval equipment and $4 billion for French air defense equipment before turning to Britain for an advanced aircraft.
U.S. officials said they are convinced, however, that the Saudis did not have the intention, or cash, to buy both the Tornado and 40 more F15s and that they deliberately postponed their decision to purchase the European-made Tornado until after the Reagan administrration informed them in July that it was not putting forth for congressional approval the F15 arms sale request.
U.S. officials and arms specialists forsee the following likely other consequences flowing from the failure of U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Jordan this past year:
*Jordan may follow the Saudi lead and purchase the Tornado from Britain if Congress continues to block the sale of 40 F16Cs or F20s to King Hussein beyond next March, which now seems likely. Saudi Arabia is reported to be willing to help finance Jordan's purchase of the Tornado and Britain to have offered preferential prices. This would mean Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Oman -- all three monarchies -- would have the same European-made aircraft.
*Saudi Arabia is finally getting from Britain an aircraft with an advanced attack mission capability that the United States had refused to sell it. Furthermore, Britain is delivering the first squadron of Tornado fighter bombers in 1986; the United States had not planned to deliver any of the additional 40 F15s until the late 1980s or the early 1990s.
*Britain will also sell the Saudis advanced avionics and new weapons technology that the United States refused to provide the kingdom. These include "smart" bombs, state-of-the-art radar-guided Skyflash missiles, advanced air-to-air missiles, air-base supression weapons and advanced air defense avionics.