COLUMN ONE: The IAF’s Achilles’ heel

The administration has rejected Israel’s requests for additional systems it could use to defend against Iran attacks.

IAF jets take part in a multinational aerial exercise in Nevada (photo credit: IAF)
IAF jets take part in a multinational aerial exercise in Nevada
(photo credit: IAF)
This week Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told government ministers that he may wait for the next US president before signing a new military assistance deal with America. Israel’s current military assistance package is set to expire in 2018 and the new package is supposed to include supplemental aid to compensate Israel for President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. But to date, the administration has rejected Israel’s requests for additional systems it could use to defend against Iran attacks.
Last October, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon asked US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to provide Israel with a new squadron of F-15s that Israel would outfit with its own electronics systems. Carter reportedly rejected that request as well as one for bunker buster bombs.
Carter instead insisted that Israel use the supplemental aid to purchase more F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, US-made missile defense systems, and the Osprey V-22 helicopter, which Ya’alon didn’t want.
The fact that the administration wants Israel to buy more F-35s instead of F-15s is alarming both for what it tells us about America’s commitment to maintaining Israel’s qualitative edge against Iran and for what it tells us about the F-35, which is set to become the IAF’s next generation combat fighter.
Before considering these issues, it is worth pointing out that the US is not the ally it once was.
This week Britain’s International Institute for Strategic Studies published a report warning that the West’s decades-long military technological superiority over Russia, China and other countries is eroding. The erosion of the West’s military technological advantage over the likes of China and Russia is deeply problematic for Israel. Given the IAF’s complete dependence on US defensive and offensive systems, absent other factors, Israel is imperiled simply by keeping its eggs in America’s basket.
But there are other factors that make continued dependence on the US problematic in the extreme. The erosion of the US’s military technological superiority is matched by its growing weakness internationally. This weakness is most glaring today in Syria.
Last November, Russia deployed an S-400 anti-aircraft system in Latakia. The system is capable of downing jets from a distance of 400 km. Half of Israel, including Ben-Gurion Airport, is within its range. Last December, a member of the IDF General Staff ruminated that never in their worst nightmares did Israeli military planners imagine that the S-400 would be deployed so close to us.
The S-400 ended Israel’s regional air superiority.
It also ended US air superiority.
In late December, Bloomberg reported that right after the Russians deployed the S-400, they began targeting with radar US planes providing air support to rebel forces in Syria.
US officials called Russia’s actions “a direct and dangerous provocation.”
Rather than respond forcefully to Russia’s aggressive move, the US ended all manned flights in the area. It stopped providing air support to rebel forces. There is a direct connection between the US’s docile acceptance of its loss of air superiority in December and the brutal Russian supported assault on Aleppo today.
This week, ambassador Dennis Ross and New York Times military correspondent David Sanger, who are both generally supportive of the Obama administration, published articles excoriating Obama’s policies in Syria.
Ross and Sanger both wrote that Obama was critically mistaken when he said that Russia’s deployment to Syria would not have any significant impact on the region, and that Russia would rue the day it decided to get directly involved.
Sanger noted that the administration’s constant refrain that “there is no military solution” to the war in Syria was wrong.
There is a military solution, it’s “just not our military solution,” a senior US security official admitted to Sanger. It’s Russian President Vladimir Putin’s solution.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Ross explained that in deploying his forces to Syria, “Putin aims to demonstrate that Russia, and not America, is the main power broker in the region and increasingly elsewhere.”
In other words, Putin’s involvement in Syria is simply a means to achieve his larger goal of replacing the US as the leading superpower.
This turn of events is dangerous for Israel, not least because the first parties Russia turned to in its anti-American gambit are Israel’s worst enemies – Iran and Hezbollah, along with the Assad regime. By acting in concert, and limiting their operations – as the Iranians have done as well in Iraq – to attacking forces backed by the US, while leaving Islamic State unharmed, the Russians, Iranians, Hezbollah and Bashar Assad make clear that their alliance is first and foremost geared toward reducing US power in the region.
Rather than act on this direct challenge to the US, Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry continue to talk emptily about peace conferences and cease-fires. In so doing their further destroy US credibility as an ally. As America’s primary ally and client in the region, Israel is imperiled by this behavior because it serves to hollow out its capacity to deter its enemies from attacking.
This then brings us to the F-35s and to the IAF’s procurement policies more generally.
Over the past year, the IAF began preparing to take delivery of its first squadron of F-35s. In 2010, Israel placed its first order of 19 planes.
The first two are scheduled to arrive by the end of 2016. The rest are supposed to arrive within two years.
Last year Israel ordered an additional 14 F-35s, and the IAF reportedly wishes to expand that order with an additional 17 aircraft.
By all accounts, the F-35 is an impressive next generation fighter. But at the same time, as Aaron Lerner from IMRA news aggregation service noted this week, the F-35 suffers from one major weakness that arguably cancels out all of its advantages. That weakness is the F-35’s operational dependence on software laboratories and logistics support computers located in the US.
In a manner that recalls Apple’s ability to exert perpetual control over all iPhones by making it impossible for them to long function without periodically updating their operating systems, the US has made it impossible for foreign governments to simply purchase F-35s and use them as they see fit.
As reported last November, “All F-35 aircraft operating across the world will have to update their mission data files and their Autonomic Logistic Information System (ALIS) profiles before and after every sortie, to ensure that on-board systems are programmed with the latest available operational data and that ALIS is kept permanently informed of each aircraft’s technical status and maintenance requirements.
“ALIS can, and has, prevented aircraft taking off because of an incomplete data file,” the report revealed.
This technical limitation on the F-35s constitutes a critical weakness from Israel’s perspective for two reasons. First, as the Defense-Aerospace article points out, the need to constantly update the ALIS in the US means that the F-35 must be connected to the Internet in order to work. All Internet connections are maintained via fiber optic underwater cables.
Defense-Aerospace cited an article published last October in reporting that those cables are “surprisingly vulnerable” to attack.
According to Nicole Starosielski, a media expert from New York University, all Internet communications go through a mere 200 underwater cables that are “concentrated in very few areas. The cables end up getting funneled through these narrow pressure points all around the globe,” she said.
The Russians are probing this vulnerability.
In October the New York Times reported that “Russian submarines and spy ships are aggressively operating near the vital undersea cables that carry almost all global Internet communications, raising concerns among some American military and intelligence officials that the Russians might be planning to attack those lines in times of tension or conflict.”
According to the report, the fear is that an “ultimate Russian hack on the United States could involve severing the fiber-optic cables at some of their hardest-to-access locations to halt the instant communications on which the West’s governments, economies and citizens have grown dependent.”
Given the F-35’s dependence on the Internet, such an attack, while directed at the US itself, would also ground the IAF’s main combat fighter.
The second reason the F-35’s continuous dependence on a US-based logistics system is a critical weakness is that it would be irresponsible of Israel to trust that the US will not abuse its power to undermine and block IAF operations.
This brings us back to the Pentagon’s insistence that Israel purchase only F-35s and missile defense systems. By giving Israel no option other than purchasing more F-35s, which the Americans control – to the point of being able to ground – even after they are deployed by the IAF, and defensive systems jointly developed with the US and built in the US, the Americans are hollowing out Israel’s ability to operate independently.
Clearly by waiting for the next president to conclude Israel’s military assistance package, Netanyahu is hoping that Obama’s successor will give us a better deal. But the fact is that even if a pro-Israel president is elected, Israel cannot assume that American efforts to erode Israel’s strategic independence will end once Obama leaves office.
George W. Bush, who was more supportive of Israel than Obama, also undermined Israel’s ability to attack Iran’s nuclear installations.
Moreover, given the continuing diminishment of US military power, and America’s expanding strategic vulnerabilities, the possibility that the US will be unwilling or unable to stand by Israel in the future cannot be ruled out.
This week India and Israel were poised to finalize a series of arms deals totaling $3 billion.
The final package is set to be signed during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel later this year. The deal includes various missile and electronic warfare systems.
In light of the F-35s massive vulnerabilities and the diminishment of US power in the Middle East and beyond, Netanyahu should view India’s enthusiasm for Israeli systems as an opportunity to end the IAF’s utter dependence on increasingly undependable US systems.
Instead of going through with the procurement of the 14 additional F-35s, Netanyahu should offer Modi to jointly develop a next generation fighter based on the Lavi.
Israel’s strategic environment is rapidly changing.
Technological, military and political developments in the region and worldwide must wake our leaders – including IAF commanders – to the fact that Israel cannot afford to maintain, let alone expand, its strategic dependence on the US.