If you can’t have more, ask for early
By Amir Oren
When Israeli defense planners look at the near future, they have two main items to consider – how to make up for a perceived partial loss of the Air Force’s edge over anyone flying in the Middle East and what to do when the next U.S. President re-engages with Iran to negotiate a so-called JCPOA 2.0 – a new deal to supplant the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action aborted by the Trump Administration.
At Hakirya, the Tel Aviv headquarters of the Defense Ministry, the General Staff, Air Force, Navy and Military Intelligence (only the Army is out of town), the assumption is that no matter who wins the White House and control over Congress November 3rd, a new policy will be adopted vis-a-vis Tehran. Five years ago, when the Netanyahu government rejected the very idea of a JCPOA, it barred the military from having any input into the American, German, French and British demands from Iran. Jerusalem, as distinct from Tel Aviv, took an all-out, either-or position. Next time, when either Donald Trump in his second term or Joe Biden in his first moves to resume talks, senior defense officials will make sure their ideas would be injected into the Western outline, which will have to be coordinated with Russia and China, too.
Even before that happens, once the election is over, and before the January inauguration, the request for an F-35 sale to the United Arab Emirates is expected to be announced and sent to Capitol Hill for approval. Israel will be asked for its view regarding the qualitative dent in its superiority, because while the UAE is the new star in the regional normalization galaxy, other pro-American nations are sure to follow, with a major risk of F-35 technology being spread around, falling into hostile hands and making the IDF’s job in wartime much harder.
Hakirya’s opposition to this sale had been duly noted and practically ignored. Now that the deal is about to be presented, with Netanyahu indicating that his government will not go as far as giving its blessing but will refrain from unleashing its friends to torpedo it, the issue will be the make-up of the compensation package offered to Israel.
Realistically, this is not the moment for Israel to ask for more security assistance, as measured by extra $ Billions. The U.S. economy has been stricken by COVID-19. Millions lost their jobs and life’s savings. Foreign aid has never been popular. Some legislators, especially in the left wing of the Democratic party, may use a new Israeli package to demand policy concessions and conditions regarding settlements, etc. They will remain a minority, but Israel can do without the controversy, as the trend among younger voters is not as supportive towards it as with older generations.
So while additional funds for additional weapons to offset new vulnerabilities would have been nice, they are probably out of the question for the coming budgetary cycle. What Israel could get is an earlier delivery schedule of systems it badly needs.
For instance, or in this case four instance, the 4 KC-46 aerial refuelers the IAF ordered. Without them, it will be very cumbersome to execute an elaborate plan to fly out towards Iran but penetrate it from directions less expected by its air defense system. The sooner these tankers land in Israel, the better prepared fighter pilots will be for combat, and because it will be made public, the significance will not be lost on the Iranians and would have an added deterrence value.
It will be quite easy for the Pentagon to re-arrange the slots on the production line, or even order a squadron in the Air Mobility Command to send four tankers Tel Aviv and tell their crews, “leave your planes there and take the next commercial flight home.”
In a similar vein, Israel wants its next batches, of F-35’s and F-15’s fighters and whatever helicopter it drcides on to replace its aging fleet, ASAP. In planning for 2030, 2040 and beyond, it fears a gap between generations, as its mainstay F-16’s are phased out, and wishes to have it shortened if not completely closed. If the Department of Defense intervenes with industry, USAF and other foreign customers to allow Israel to jump the line, it could ease some of the concerns at IAF hq.
Usually, the IAF has first to decide its internal priorities and make a formal recommendation to the General Staff, which either approves or amends and sends up, to the defense ministry and on to a ministerial procurement committee. Except for that last forum, decisions are not made by committee. The IAF chief and the Chief of the General Staff have enormous personal statures within their organizations. As long as they are there, these two officers are the IAF and IDF, respectively. This is especially true now, with Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi as military chief and Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin in the cockpit (including the F-35’s, which he qualified in so as to better assess its compatibility to various sortie profiles).
One can hardly expect a joint Kochavi-Norkin proposal to be rejected by the civilian echelon of the defense ministry, especially as Norkin’s predecessor as IAF chief, Amir Eshel, is serving as the ministry’s Director-General, equivalent to Deputy Secretary of Defense in the U.S. government. Eshel and Norkin have similar though not identical views. Defense Minister Benny Gantz, just back from talks with Secretary Mark Esper and White House officials, may wish to have some personal input. He is reputed to prefer using some of the Foreign Military Finance money allotted to Israel for V-22’s tilt-rotors, perfect for special forces missions but less useful in war, where sheer mass is needed. The IDF and IAF consider a mini-squadron of V-22’s nice to have rather than necessary. Priorities are listed top down and then cut from the bottom, as resources are assigned – and for every $ Israel gets in hardware free of charge, it will have to raid its iwn treasury for many Shekels over many years in life cycle costs.
This is an internal Israeli debate, with the Finance Ministry intervening and the Prime Minister arbitrating, if Defense and Finance are deadlocked. But when Hakirya goes to the Pentagon with an agreed Israeli position, there is some leeway to please Israel even without adding a single item. That entails some creative accounting, perhaps needing Congressional approval, by which the $ 3.8 Billion given to Israel annually for defense procurement in the U.S. would be re-scheduled, with more than this sum granted now and less in the out-years until it expires in 2028. More now – which is also good for the struggling American economy – means earlier delivery, and perhaps better terms, for IDF systems, of which IAF has a large share. The truism that time is money is here read from right to left. Money marked now is time effectively saved.
An intriguing addition to the debate over the F-35 Fifth Generation fighter (F-15’s are Fourth Gen, F-4’s Third, and so on down the jet age escalator), is whether Israel could be given the privilege of sharing the secret of a Sixth-Generation fighter, acronymed NGAD (for next generation air dominance), whose prototype maiden flight was revealed by the USAF in mid-September. It is strictly American, with its secrets kept from allies, too, and is not even certain to be manned – the U.S. may have achieved a breakthrough in unmanning its next fighter, not to be confused with today’s aerial vehicles built for strike and reconnaissance but not for dogfighting.
So here we go again: 2025, USAF and USN proudly announce their Sixth-Gen. 2030, Israel allowed to buy it. 2035, UAE and Saudi Arabia, which by now has opened its Embassy in Tel Aviv, want it, too. 2040, Israel asks for a sneak-peak into the U.S. Seventh-Generation wonder aircraft…