image From Cleveland to the Holyland. Ohio Air National Guard tanker refuels F-35 in Israeli airspace. Photo: USAF

The Sixth Eye

A political and professional consensus on Israel’s Mideast military value as an enduring buddy

By Amir Oren

Enduring Lightning II is the name given to a unique exercise held over Israel last week and made public by the US Air Force, whose planes took part in it alongside the Israel Air Force. The name was apparently chosen for a reason, or two.

“Enduring” has become a reference to a long campaign, in which the hallmark is American determination to pursue the fight as many years as it takes, as in Enduring Freedom, the invasion of Afghanistan to decimate al-Qaeda and the Taliban after 9/11. “lightning II” is the world’s premier fighter, Lockheed’s F-35. It is “II”, because in the Second World War the same company produced the P-38 Lightning. P for pursuit was changed to F for fighter and the old Lockheed outfit merged with Martin Marietta, but the legacy remains.

Another term which entered the military glossary in the 1940’s was “combined”, namely multi-national, basically British and American, as distinct from “joint”, which refers to two US armed forces branches in conjuction. These were two novel concepts, at the time, as it was difficult for the US Navy (including the Marine Corps) and US Army (out of which the Air Force later seperated) to give up their traditional independence of each other, let alone cooperate with another nation’s military.

Out of that experience, and the American realization that there are a few trustworthy countries regardless of shifting political winds, there arose an elite club of intelligence exchange and military collaboration. Its root is Anglo-Saxon, though Québécois die-hards would justly dispute this generalization. Club members are the US, Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Collectively, they are The Five Eyes. Last week their Defense Ministers held one of their regular huddles, due to COVID-19 constraints via videoconference.

At virtually the same time, Enduring Lightning II took place in Israeli airspace. F-35A’s (the Air Force Model, rather than the Navy’s aircraft carrier version and the Marines short/vertical take-off/landing one) flew operational profiles and refueled by meeting with tankers, which the US has plenty of and the Israel Air Force badly needs.

As noteworthy as the exercise itself was the decision to publicize it. The Pentagon’s news release stated that the two Air Forces  “trained to maintain a ready posture and strengthen strategic partnership across Centcom and Eucom” – the areas of responsibility of the US Central and European Commands, respectively.

While a reflection of reality over most of the past decade, when the Israel Defense Forces became an inportant though covert partner in the fight against Daesh in Syria and elsewhere, it was nevertheless an important message of political significance. Washington was telling the world, and particularly the Arab world, that it has nothing to hide in its ties with the IDF and especially with its most powerful and far-reaching (even more so with aerial refueling) arm.

It was a revolutionary milestone in an evolutionary process. Collaboration with the Israeli military, and an overt one at that, was anathema to the US military during most of the Cold War. The Joint Chiefs, and especially the oil-dependent Navy, put top priority on not angering Arab governments, given their geography and resources. The Pentagon feared for itself and for Japan and Western Europe. NATO was torn in the 1973 war, with the European allies concerned lest any help to Israel penalize them with an oil embargo.

It was only in the late 1970’s that the US military started warming up to the IDF. The Army, rebuilding following Vietnam, was eager to absorb the lessons of the Yom Kippur War. When the Egypt-Israel peace treaty was signed, with Cairo firmly in the same pro-American camp Jerusalem opted for three decades earlier, the Joint Chiefs signalled their approval by personal and port visits to Israel.

In the early 1980’s, Centcom was established to take care of Persian Gulf conflicts and beyond. Israel, along with Lebanon and Syria, was kept under Eucom, whose Commanding General (or Admiral, a rarity) is also in charge of NATO’s forces. Centcom leaders shuddered at the thought of any contact with Israel contaminating their relations with Saudi Arabia and its neighbors. The Arab-Israeli conflict was seen as hampering Centcom’s focus on the Iran-Iraq war, Afghanistan – under Soviet Invasion – and terrorist groups.

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the collapse of the Soviet Union nudged the US military in the direction of its Israeli brothers in arms, but not by much. In the 1990’s Jordan joined Egypt as the second peaceful neighbor to Israel in Centcom, yet American officers kept resisting the idea of moving the entire Levant – Lebanon, Syria and Israel – out of Eucom and into Centcom, an idea pushed by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld after the first successful stage of the 2003 Iraq war. The Joint Staff argued that this will set back the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and that Israel will be reluctant to share its intelligence and doctrine if it fears leakage to coaltion partners hostile to it. Rumsfeld over-ruled his uniformed subordinates on Syria and Lebanon. Israel, alone is east of the Mediterranean shore, stayed in EUCOM and bolstered its ties with NATO, too.

In the current Israeli-American military relationship, both sides give no less than receive. For the political authorities in Washington, regardless of President or party, it is crucial to assure Israel that it should not fear staying on its own if an existential threat such as nuclear Iran’s emerges – the US will be there, with missile defense and more, so there is no need to jump the gun or, God forbid, reach for an ultimate weapon everyone suspect exists but no-one dare confirm. For the US military, it is an opportunity to learn from – and with – the best. Not that the Israelis are vain enough to ignore their relative advantages and disadvantages compared to a global power with missions and responsibilities from China and Korea to Alaska and the Sahara. They do know that in their own theater and with their cumulative experience out of persistent conflict, they may be experts second to none, and yet as prone to fail once in a while much like outsiders.

And so the mutual benefit is obvious. Getting to know the people, the procedures, the practices, the planes, the plans, down to a certain level. Fly together, find a common language, become buddies.

Some 45 years ago, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, USAF General George Brown, misspoke when asked whether Israel is to him an asset or a burden. The latter, he answered, having in mind a 1973-like scenario where emergency aid to Israel threatens to deplete US reserves, break up NATO and help the Soviets.

None of Brown’s recent successors, the Mullens and the Dempseys, the Dunfords and the Milleys, would echo that concept today. There are regular, rotating meetings between chiefs or operations and plans deputies of Eucom, Centcom and the IDF General Staff, which some would for the sake of uniformity call Jewcom.

Organizations, especially military ones, prefer organic relationships, rather than some last minute liaison (a recipe for failure such as the Franco-British fiasco at Suez in 1956, while the IDF easily prevailed in Sinai). As Enduring Lightning II indicates, and signals to foe and friend alike, in some respects the Israelis are the Americans’ most intimate intelligence and operational partners. With the proven professionalism of Israel’s Aman (Directorate of Military Intelligence) and Mossad, Special Forces and perhaps above all the IAF, Israel is indeed the Sixth Eye. As for the common heritage, the British left a mere 72 years ago.