The Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft that Pakistan wants to get from Washington has played an important part in the US military buildup in the Persian Gulf region. In 1978, the Carter administration sold seven of the planes to the Shah of Iran. One motivation was to reduce the unit cost for the 34 planes ordered by the US Air Force. Iran canceled its order after the revolution, and Washington then pressed NATO to order 18 of them.

In the spring of 1979, the US conducted military exercises in Saudi Arabia using US radar aircraft in coordination with Saudi warplanes. In early October 1980, following the Iraqi invasion of Iran, Washington dispatched four AWACS to operate out of Saudi Arabia under US command. In April 1981, the Reagan administration proposed an $8.5 billion sale of five AWACS to the Saudis. The sale narrowly escaped Congressional veto in October 1981. The last of these five AWACS was finally delivered to Saudi Arabia in April 1987. There are presently 57 AWACS in use in the world — nine of them based in Saudi Arabia.

When promoting AWACS for sale overseas, the Pentagon advertizes it as a sophisticated air defense system. The US Air Force originally sold AWACS to Congress based on their offensive capability as a “force multiplier” — picking targets and coordinating tactical fighter attacks as well as providing warning against attack. They have a radar range of 350-400 miles. Some of the battlefield intelligence which the US has provided both Iraq and Iran over the past several years has come from AWACS patrols as well as from intelligence satellites.

The AWACS project in Saudi Arabia is the centerpiece of an integrated regional system costing around $50 billion. When completed, it will allow the coordination of more than 200 Saudi combat aircraft and some 100-150 fighter planes belonging to other GCC states. Four of the nine AWACS in Saudi Arabia are US Air Force planes. Saudi crews are supposed to fly the five AWACS purchased by Saudi Arabia, but in the past six years US personnel have managed to train only enough Saudis to crew one or two of the planes. It seems, then, that US military personnel will be flying and servicing most of the nine AWACS in Saudi Arabia. American officials do not seem too unhappy at this point that the 530 or so US military personnel previously stationed in Saudi Arabia in conjunction with the AWACS project will have to be there years longer than originally planned, and probably increased in number.

The nine AWACS in Saudi Arabia will be electronically linked to the guided missile frigates, cruisers and destroyers of the expanded US naval force in the Gulf, and with the F-14s and F-18s based on one or more aircraft carriers stationed just outside the Gulf.

How to cite this article:

Joe Stork "AWACS in the Gulf," Middle East Report 148 (September/October 1987).
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