The Proposed Sale of E-3A Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) Aircraft to Saudi Arabia

Gao ID: 116560 October 1, 1981

GAO takes no position on whether Congress should approve the sale of E-3A Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft to Saudi Arabia. However, there is a strong rationale for using an airborne early warning system to defend the Saudi oil fields, and the United States needs access to Saudi Arabian military bases and facilities for effective military projection during a crisis in the region. The Saudi AWACS would have both offensive and defensive capabilities. It would be essentially the same as or better than the AWACS in the current U.S. inventory. Substituting five Saudi AWACS for the current U.S. AWACS deployment in Saudi Arabia would either reduce current coverage time by about half or require supplemental help from U.S. AWACS to maintain extended around-the-clock coverage. The administration sees the sale as a way to pre-position AWACS spare parts and specialized equipment that could be available for use by U.S. forces in a crisis in the region. However, Saudi Arabia has been reluctant to agree to the future use of its bases by the United States. Saudi Arabia recognizes the Soviet threat but perceives threats from other nations in the region to be more imminent. Selling AWACS to Saudi Arabia will enhance the potential capabilities of the Royal Saudi Air Force, but according to the Department of Defense, not sufficiently to be a threat to Israeli security. There would be a compromise of the security of AWACS technology by selling the system to Saudi Arabia, but the actual physical security of AWACS seems adequate to handle a threat from theft, hijacking, or sabotage. About 500 Americans, mostly contractor personnel, would be responsible for providing training, maintenance, and logistics support for the program. An extensive logistical infrastructure would be required to support the Saudi AWACS. Alternative airborne systems could also provide Saudi Arabia with enhanced early warning capabilities. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia asked for AWACS, and the Department of Defense selected AWACS for early warning operations in Saudi Arabia.

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