Security and Defense: Power points

Maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge is becoming more difficult and expensive in the face of growing threats from Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas.

September 3, 2010 16:48
The F35 Joint Strike Fighter.

311_ F-35 JSF. (photo credit: (Rodger Mallison/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)

In 1953, prime minister David Ben-Gurion took a vacation to give some thought to a serious issue – how Israel, a tiny state surrounded by hostile Arab countries which openly called for its destruction, could survive.

A few weeks later, he returned to the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem with a paper entitled “The Doctrine of Defense and the State of the Armed Forces.” This paper, with some minor changes, continues to serve as the country’s defense doctrine.

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One of Ben-Gurion’s tenets was that since Israel would always be inferior in size and numbers to the Arab world, it needed to develop a strong qualitative military edge.

The rationale was quite simple: While Israel has fewer soldiers than Syria, it will have better trained ones; while it has fewer tanks than Egypt, it will have more advanced ones; and while it might have the same F-15s as Saudi Arabia and F-16s as Egypt, its will be equipped with smart bombs, specially-designed armaments and advanced electronic warfare systems.

This principle – made possible by an unparalleled investment in defense and the billions of dollars in military aid received annually from the US – was reinforced following the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and the growing challenge from Iran and its pursuit of nuclear power.

A year after the war, the US and Israel signed a 10-year memorandum of understanding under which Israel was to receive $30 billion in military financing.

Maintaining this qualitative edge, though, has become more and more difficult in face of the growing threats that Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas pose. The challenge is multiplied, particularly against Hamas and Hizbullah, which hide behind civilian infrastructure, thus not allowing that military edge to be deployed as it would be in a conventional war. Syria, meanwhile, is spending billions of dollars – for the first time in years – on air defense systems to chip away at Israel’s advantage.

HISTORICALLY, Israel has always purchased its large platforms – missile ships, fighter and transport aircraft, attack helicopters – in the US. The one exception is the IDF’s main battle tank – the Merkava – said to be the most advanced and best protected in the world.

The country’s defense industries are also world leaders in the development of unmanned aerial vehicles, mini satellites, radar systems and smart weapons. Germany, Australia, France, Spain and Canada are all flying Israeli-made UAVs in Afghanistan.

But the situation is changing for Israel as its adversaries seek new capabilities. One example was provided this past week when Egyptian security forces uncovered arms caches in the Sinai destined for Hamas in the Gaza Strip which included hundreds of shoulder-to-air missiles.

Hizbullah is believed to have similar capabilities and is reportedly also seeking Russian-made truck-mounted surface- to-air missiles that would dramatically impair the IAF’s ability to fly freely over Lebanon.

Offensively, these adversaries are continuing to invest billions of dollars in missiles that will be able to circumvent the IDF’s offensive and defensive systems and strike deep inside the country. Hamas, for example, recently tested an upgraded version of the Iranian Fajr 5 artillery rocket which has a range of 70 kilometers, giving the terror group the ability to strike north of Tel Aviv. Hizbullah is working to bolster its fleet of UAVs, some of which could carry explosives across the border.

Last month, the Obama administration unveiled unprecedented plans to sell Saudi Arabia $60 billion worth of the most-advanced military platforms, including 84 F-15s, 70 Black Hawk helicopters and 60 Apache attack helicopters. Egypt is also purchasing from the US new F-16s from the same block as the IAF’s latest ones.

Israel’s current investments in military platforms are split between offensive and defensive systems. It is procuring the fifth-generation F-35 stealth Joint Strike Fighter, which would provide the IAF with the ability to fly undetected in enemy territory and is also developing advanced missile defense systems.

But this doesn’t mean that Israel is not concerned with the overall military buildup in the region. On the one hand, It understands the importance in the US selling its most advanced military platforms to moderate Arab countries in the Middle East particularly in light of the Iranian nuclear threat and the realignment taking place within Gulf states.

On the other hand, Israel cannot ignore history, and with President Hosni Mubarak possibly in his last year in office and the Saudi regime shaky as ever, there is concern that what happened in Iran in 1979 could one day happen in other countries in the Middle East.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Israel reportedly raised some objections to the US regarding the Saudi deal and was able to wring out a concession that standoff weapons systems would not be included.

The Americans have traditionally made a strong argument when selling advanced systems to the Saudis or Egyptians. Firstly, if the US doesn’t sell the equipment, someone else will and that someone else is likely to be Russia, whose influence in the region Israel should be interested in limiting. Secondly, by selling the planes to the Arab countries, the US maintains a certain degree of control over their use, since the countries will be dependent on the US for spare parts and maintenance.

While there is some truth to this argument, it is not rock solid. Iran, which purchased F-4 fighters from the US in the 1970s, has despite an embargo that has been in place since shortly after the revolution, succeeded in continuing to obtain spare parts.

The US also argues that the Saudis are spending $60 billion of their own money in buying fourth-generation aircraft, while Israel is using American money to purchase the F-35.

WHILE ISRAEL is skeptical about these arguments, it is not overtly working – like it has in the past – to torpedo the Saudi deal. Does this mean that Israel is not concerned? Not necessarily.

Nevertheless, Israel is currently working on creating the military package that it will receive from the US if the peace talks, which kicked off this week in Washington DC, culminate in a deal with the Palestinian Authority and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. It is arguing that if it were to withdraw from the West Bank, it would be taking upon itself a number of major risks. As a result, in the runup to the current negotiations, the IDF Planning Branch drafted a paper outlining security requirements that was approved by Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

In the plan, the IDF referred to three different requirements for any withdrawal from the West Bank – a commitment that rockets would not be smuggled into the West Bank, a commitment that the Palestinians will not resume terror attacks and a commitment that if Iraq were to one day pose a military threat again, the Palestinians will not allow it – or any other country – to deploy military forces in the West Bank.

In talks that both Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Barak have held with US officials, there appears to be a readiness to offer such a package.

This is something of a precedent. In the past, such a package was spoken about with regard to a peace deal and a withdrawal from the Golan Heights. In 2000, when prime minister Barak was in peace talks with Syria, he reportedly asked the Clinton administration for a $17 billion “security package” which included new AWACS, helicopters and cruise missiles.

One example of what the package could include is additional F- 35s. The IAF recently announced it was purchasing 20 for around $3 billion but there is skepticism within the defense establishment whether there will be additional funds, down the road, to purchase additional aircraft.

Funding for missile defense systems that Israel is planning on deploying throughout the country – like the Iron Dome – could also be included.

In addition to the withdrawal from the West Bank, such a package, if provided by the Americans, would likely come with another price tag – that Israel expedite its withdrawal from the West Bank faster than planned.

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