Dhahran - Guns, planes and tanks made in the United States form the military muscle. But that's only part of America's overall role.
An impressive combination of U.S. weapons and American know-how is helping turn this thinly populated kingdom into one of the leading military powers in the entire Middle East.
Billions of dollars' worth of U.S.-built planes, tanks, guns and other equipment are providing a much needed punch to a Saudi military machine charged with defending a country of about 7.5 million people in an area the size of the United States east of the Mississippi River.
The flow of military purchases from the U.S. - which could cost as much as 10 billion dollars during the decade that will end in 1984 - is only part of the American connection here.
Hundreds of U.S. military advisers and thousands of civilians on the scene are engaged in a massive effort to modernize the Saudi armed forces. Behind the tremendous push to develop a modern military force:
The conservative and firmly anti-Communist Saudis consider it necessary to keep pace with potential rivals in the Persian Gulf area - notably Iraq, ruled by radicals, and Iran, governed by a conservative Shah now but with an unpredictable future.
The Saudis also keep a wary eye on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Riyadh's direct involvement in possible future wars is considered unlikely, but it could well play a key role as armorer for the Arabs who will have to shoulder the burden of any fighting.
Finally, the Saudis are deeply concerned about Soviet activities in areas close to this kingdom. Moscow's decision to pour millions of dollars in arms into Ethiopia for a war with Somalia, plus the Cuban involvement in the fighting are cited here as evidence of the need to stay on guard against Communist expansion in the region.
However, the Defense Minister, Prince Sultan ibn Abdul Aziz, says Saudi Arabia has no intention of creating a large military establishment. That would hardly be feasible in a country with such a small population. The Army now numbers only 40,000.
What the Saudis are actually planning to build is a highly mobile Army with a strong mechanized and airborne capability. They also envisage a powerful Air Force and a sophisticated missile-defense system.
Currently, the Army consists of a single armored brigade, four infantry brigades and three artillery battalions, backed up by 300 AMX-30 French tanks and 250 American M-60 tanks. The Air Force has 110 Northrop F-5E's and 37 obsolete British Lightning interceptors. It hopes to augment those squadrons with 60 highly sophisticated U.S.-built McDonnell Douglas F-15s in the early 1980s.
Critics in Congress. There are serious doubts, as of now, whether Congress will O.K. the F-15 deal even though President Carter has given the green light. Congressional critics fear the new aircraft could tilt the military balance against Israel in the future. The story on page 56 gives details.
Heart of the American military presence in Saudi Arabia is the mission headed by Air Force Brig. Gen. Carl H. Cathey, Jr. Some 250 uniformed U.S. advisers are training Saudi officers in a wide range of activities - from converting infantry to armor, to instructing combat pilots.
The mission includes another 750 Department of Defense civilians who train Saudis in the use and maintenance of the M-60 tanks.Naval officers also are assisting in the development of a 2,000-man, 28-vessel Navy.
The mission is only part of the total American involvement in the country's military buildup. In all, there are more than 6,000 U.S. civilian contract workers here engaged in a variety of assignments. For example:
More than 1,000 Northrop Corporation personnel help support the F-5E aircraft program. Raytheon Company assists in the deployment of the Hawk surface-to-air missile system.
Lockheed Aircraft Corporation is prime adviser on radio. Avco Corporation is working with the Coast Guard, Bendix Corporation with the Ordnance and Transport Corps.
Vinnell Corporation of California has contracts for one of the larger operations - a 77-million-dollar effort to strengthen the 26,000-man National Guard, the internal-security force responsible for protecting the oil fields and the royal family.
Engineering expertise. The largest venture of all may be the huge construction program for which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible. Total outlays for corps-directed projects could run as high as 17 billion dollars over a 10-year span.
Some 82 Army engineers and about 800 civilians - all paid by the Saudis - comprise the engineering contingent. In addition, the corps is responsible for subcontracting projects to civilian firms such as Bechtel Corporation, Fluor Corporation, Santa Fe Engineering, Lockheed, Raytheon, J. A. Jones, Blount Brothers and Aramco. To date, American companies have won some 43 percent of the contracts.
Actually, much of the work overseen by the corps is military only in a technical sense.
Morrison-Knudsen, for example, is helping to build a cantonment at Al Batin, northwest of Dhahran. The project calls for construction of facilities for 6,500 troops and their families, including schools, hospitals, mosques and markets. Eventually, Al Batin is expected to grow into a community of 70,000, with total construction costs running up to 7 billion dollars.
The U.S. is not the only Western power that the Saudis are calling on for help. France and Britain also have training missions here. But they are small compared with the tremendous American presence that shows every sign of becoming even larger in years ahead.