Commentary Magazine


Israel as a Strategic Asset

The idea that the American commitment to Israel has damaged our interests in the Middle East has surfaced once again as a result of the war in Lebanon and its diplomatic aftermath. This, in spite of the fact that in the Middle East, a region located on the doorstep of the USSR and where resentment of the West is well-ingrained, the supposedly damaged U.S. is today the dominant political power.

An examination of the historical record, moreover, demonstrates that Israel has often served as a silent partner in the American role in the area. At the request of the U.S., for example, Israel mobilized in September 1970 to defend Jordan from Syrian attack, a move which in itself averted the need. We also know that Israeli intelligence has acted to warn several Arab governments close to the U.S. of impending actions against them. In the summer of 1977, the new Begin government provided Anwar Sadat with information about an effort by Libyan-backed conspirators to overthrow him. The Israelis have similarly provided repeated secret warnings of threats to the Saudis. In the recent mini-crisis over a Libyan-inspired threat to the Sudanese government, the intelligence sources which the U.S. relied on to mobilize a counter-offensive were largely Israeli.

In 1982 the Israelis drove two Soviet proxies, the Syrians and the PLO, from Beirut and opened Lebanon to the United States. The war in Lebanon itself represented the culmination of a decade and a half in which Israeli intelligence and military methods were in the vanguard of the campaign to control and destroy the network of international terrorism which has been operating against democratic or pro-Western regimes from Germany to Colombia; Ireland to Thailand; Spain to Turkey. The much-maligned Israeli attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor also dealt a blow to future instability and violence.

But even these examples do not do justice to Israeli influence on the political and military balance of the area and the benefits this brings to the United States. Israel today is a significant enough military power to act as a deterrent against Soviet plans for an invasion of the Persian Gulf or for activities in the Mediterranean. For example, if the Soviet air force wishes to entertain operational activities in the vicinity, it must take the Israeli air force into account. So too at sea. Although not noted for naval prowess, Israel has become a major factor in the Eastern Mediterranean, especially since its forces were largely withdrawn from the Gulf of Tiran with the relinquishing of the Sinai. Indeed, in the 200-250 mile area off Israel’s shores, no power can easily challenge its naval vessels. (During the recent Sudan crisis, it was this major Israeli presence which permitted units of the Sixth Fleet to leave the coast of Lebanon.) The Soviets must also take this force into account in formulating their own plans and operations.

With the Soviet Union so close at hand by comparison with the U.S., in no other area is there such a high premium on U.S. airlift and sealift capabilities to sustain the credibility of U.S. military strategy. The Rapid Deployment Force (RDF) does not have available to it adequate supplies, especially fuel, for use in a crisis—which is sufficient in and of itself to destroy its credibility. Where else but in Israel could such supplies be safely stored? The Israelis also have the facilities and the trained manpower to maintain U.S. equipment at a 20-30 percent higher state of readiness than is currently the case. Their naval facilities could be expanded to permit increased cooperation with U.S. forces in the area, such as the tracking of Soviet forces. Israel’s outstanding medical facilities—by far the best in the region—could also be expanded, and at relatively low cost, to provide care for U.S. personnel in an emergency.

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Despite the compelling logic of Israel’s past and present utility to the U.S. and the major benefits to be gained from increasing cooperation in the future, recent administrations have moved in the opposite direction. During the very period when the Israeli presence in the region has been most valuable to the United States, officials have made growing efforts to downplay the importance of the connection with Israel, to end the strategic dialogue, and to place ever-wider limits on even secret areas of strategic cooperation.

What explains this perverse behavior? The argument repeated so often that it is now an unquestioned article of faith is that cooperation with the Arab states is essential if U.S. interests in the Middle East are to be preserved. Since the Arab regimes will not accept a close U.S.-Israeli relationship—and certainly not strategic cooperation—the only way to protect U.S. interests in the area is to increase the distance between Washington and Jerusalem.

Now it is quite true that Arab states complain publicly and privately about any kind of cooperation between the U.S. and Israel, or any kind of American assistance to Israel. Yet this has not prevented the United States from emerging as the dominant great power in the area. Indeed, U.S. influence with the Arabs has usually been strongest when the relationship with Israel has been the most solid. Thus Anwar Sadat switched from an alliance with the Soviet Union to the United States precisely because he believed that only the U.S. could persuade Israel to withdraw from the Sinai.

No one should expect Arab leaders to applaud the American-Israeli relationship, and in deference to Arab sensitivities, both Washington and Jerusalem need to be discreet in parading the full scope of their contacts. But as the Jordanian crisis of September 1970 makes clear, no matter how loudly they may protest U.S.-Israeli security cooperation, Arab leaders will not hesitate to benefit from the U.S.-Israeli connection in an emergency; and, as demonstrated by Syria’s precipitous withdrawal from Jordan on that occasion, both Arab radicals and their Soviet patrons will be deterred.

The arguments against collaboration with Israel might have greater weight if functioning security cooperation had been established with other states in the region. But despite prodigious and generous efforts with respect to all possible alternatives over the last several years, no serious program has been established and none is likely to be. Great hopes have been expressed for bases and cooperation with Saudi Arabia, but its leaders are so frightened that they will not agree to any kind of American activity which will help to fulfill any U.S. strategic schemes. The Saudis have in fact hampered U.S. attempts to enlarge facilities in the Persian Gulf by placing pressure on the Omanis and the Bahrainis not to expand cooperation and preferably to contract it. American officials are reduced to arguing that increased arms sales to Riyadh will lead to American equipment being available in case of an emergency. This position is based entirely on faith, for there is no concrete evidence or specific agreement available to substantiate the confidence with which it is avowed.

Many commentators have viewed Egypt—with its peace treaty with Israel and its new relationship with the U.S.—as an attractive proxy. Yet even under President Sadat the Egyptians were reluctant to provide the U.S. with permanent bases. Today they are embarrassed to be identified with the U.S. too closely lest their new openings to the rest of the Arab world be impaired. One high-ranking Egyptian official recently told the press: “Cooperation between the United States and Egypt is on a bilateral basis and does not deviate to any regional or strategic scales. We are not a party in a regional bloc set up against anybody.” So much for all the talk about the development of an Egyptian intervention capability to project force into nearby areas.

The talk within the Reagan administration of a Jordanian Rapid Deployment Force is no more realistic. Jordan is a small country, too weak to risk serious conflict with any of its neighbors. As King Hussein’s behavior has always demonstrated, Jordanian politics is the politics of survival, and this is simply incompatible with the role of a regional proxy.

The only other possible alternative is Iraq. To many officials, that country’s conflict with Iran and disillusionment with the USSR present a tempting potential for future cooperation. That this option can have been seriously discussed, however, is testimony to the poverty of the strategic approach currently being followed by the U.S. in the Middle East. Iraq, unstable and unreliable in the best of times, is now badly shaken by its disastrous war wth Iran. In the 1950′s the U.S had paramount influence with both Iran and Iraq; given the conflict between the two in the 1980′s, a close relationship with both will not be possible, even after the war ends. Despite the tensions in the relationship between Teheran and Washington since the Shah’s departure, the U.S. cannot afford to burn its bridges with Iran because that country is more important than Iraq on every index of strategic and geo-political valuation. When the Ayatollah passes from the scene, the U.S. will have to make an attempt to recoup and to prevent Russian domination. The Kremlin has clearly recognized which country represents the greater prize, and its so far unsuccessful attempt to flirt with Iran is in large measure responsible for its tensions with Iraq. Even if Iraq were prepared to realign, and even if it were worth a new effort for the U.S. to consummate a new relationship, the risk in terms of sacrificing future openings to Iran would negate the option.

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A hard look at the potential allies of the U.S. in the Middle East, then, returns us to Israel as the only country in the region upon whom we can rely. It is no longer a question of whether the U.S. dare take advantage of Israel’s offer for increased cooperation. The question is, do we have a choice? Before his mind was cluttered with the politics of Washington bureaucratizing, Ronald Reagan said it well: “The fall of Iran has increased Israel’s value as perhaps the only remaining strategic asset in the region on which the United States can truly rely.”

But in addition to its value as a regional power, Israel’s importance to the United States has a global dimension as well. The notion that Israel could convey military lessons to the U.S. is seen as either embarrassing or as ludicrous given the disparity in the two countries’ size and global responsibilities. Yet the fact remains that it is Israel which is in essence testing American equipment under combat conditions and against Soviet arms, and it is Israel which is developing the technical innovations and tactics to deal with new challenges posed by the latest Soviet weaponry.

In the past, Israeli experience affected the timing and direction of large sections of U.S. research and development—thereby reducing needless expenditure on faulty systems on the one hand and stimulating necessary programs on the other. Thus the 1967 war, by strengthening the case for a fighter like the F-16, helped in its development.

The 1973 war accented the new significance of electronic warfare—work on such weapons as air-to-ground, anti-ship, and anti-aircraft missiles, as well as countermeasures, needed to be intensified. Both the 1967 and 1973 wars demonstrated the continued importance of tanks, whose utility under present conditions many had questioned, and Israeli combat experience significantly influenced the development of the M-l, the latest American battle tank.

As for the 1982 war in Lebanon, much of inestimable military value to the United States came out of it. For example, the Israelis were able to inspect the remains of several Mig-23′s and one Mig-25 which had been shot down, thereby providing the basis for adjusting operational tactics and improving American weaponry to counter equipment of Soviet design. The Israelis also worked out a lower-technology, less expensive method of destroying the T-72—the principal Soviet battle tank.

In this war, too, Israel was the first country in the world to deploy remotely-piloted vehicles (RPV’s) successfully. The Israelis thus proved that intelligence could be gathered during battle inexpensively and at low risk to the lives of airmen. Thanks to this demonstration, the Pentagon, which had placed a low priority on its own RPV program (the Aquila), revived it immediately after the Lebanon war.

A particularly dramatic event occurred in 1982 when Israel showed there was a means of breaking the anti-aircraft missile wall the Russians thought they had developed against Western air forces. This accomplishment is bound to cost the Soviets heavily, because they will have to make major adjustments and improvements in their entire air-defense system, changing production lines and developing new equipment. Since this system is similar to the Warsaw Pact air-defense system in Europe, the Israeli achievement affects the conventional balance between the U.S. and USSR as well.

Another contribution by Israel to the U.S. is in the field of intelligence. Despite the continued popularity of spy novels, in the 1980′s intelligence gathered by electronic devices rather than human spies has become central. As suggested by Israel’s success with pilotless drones, which have already proved a powerful intelligence tool, the Israelis have become important as developers of instruments (where they pay for development costs and the U.S. receives the benefit), as providers of information, and as a critical base from which to gather information. Were it not for the Israeli coverage of this critical region, the U.S. would have to spend more on such instruments as spy satellites.

In addition, the Israelis have helped develop intelligence systems with American corporations like Boeing, Sylvania, RCA, E-Systems, Beechcraft—in each case saving the U.S. millions of dollars. On some systems the Israeli contributions can be small but crucial; they often have implications for other regions. Thus, an intelligence balloon developed by Israel for over $100 million will now be used by the U.S. over Cuba. Indeed, the U.S. intelligence community makes use of 60-70 percent of Israel’s high-technology intelligence equipment.

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In keeping with the hostility toward Israel which has become so fashionable in recent months, three arguments have been brought forth to deny the importance of the Lebanon war to the military interests of the United States. The first is that the Israeli victories demonstrated only that Israeli pilots are superior to Syrian pilots and tell us nothing about the equipment involved. But the Syrians had been trained by Soviet advisers, and while it would probably have been more difficult for the Israelis against Russians, there is reason to believe that the final results would not have been different in major respects.

A second argument—that the Syrians do not receive first-line Soviet equipment—is misleading. The second- and third-echelon units in the USSR (mainly reserves) are still to a large extent equipped with T-54 and T-55 tanks, as are most East European countries (Poland and Czechoslovakia both produce the T-54 and T-55). But these are not good enough for the Syrians, who rely primarily on the much more advanced T-62 and T-72. Thus the argument that the Syrians suffered from inferior equipment simply is not accurate. In most cases the Israelis faced the same type of Soviet equipment the U.S. would face in a conventional war.

The third and most convincing argument against the military value of the Lebanon war to the U.S. is that the Soviets, having been forewarned, will now be able to adjust for weaknesses they did not previously realize they suffered from. This may be so, but taken to its logical conclusion it suggests that it would have been better for the Israelis to lose the war with the Syrians lest some of their latest innovations be compromised. The fact is that if both sides learned valuable lessons in Lebanon, only the Israelis (and the U.S. when the information is shared) know why the Soviet equipment was defeated. The Soviets are reduced to adapting and guessing. To the extent that they must renovate their air-defense umbrella instead of expanding into new arenas or improving offensive weapons, the Western position is also strengthened, both because of reduced Soviet offensive readiness and because of reduced Western costs to counter new Soviet offensive equipment.

One CIA estimate suggests that the Soviets regularly spend more on air-defense systems (primarily missiles, guns, and associated radar) than on their strategic forces—about 12 percent of their overall defense budget. If we add the cost of the Mig-21 and Mig-28 interceptors, which are part of the Russian air-defense complex, we reach a total of about 20 percent of their entire defense budget—about the same as their navy. That such a substantial percentage of their defense operations should be compromised must be seen as nothing less than a major blow.

An ironic illustration of the effect of Israel’s military reputation can be seen in the arms-sales arena. It is well-known in the U.S. defense field that many countries secretly send representatives to Israel to discuss their weapons purchases. Even from afar, Israel’s influence in these matters is great. Thus, the Japanese hesitated for more than a year over whether to purchase the Grumman E2C Hawkeye, the airborne command-and-control system the Israelis used so effectively in the Lebanon war. After Israel decided to buy it, the Japanese made their affirmative decision. Since the war, several countries—especially Singapore—have expressed interest in Hawkeye. In this case Grumman gained at the expense of the British Nimrod. What the Israelis once did for the French Mirage, they now accomplish for American aircraft such as the F-16 at the expense of the Mirage 2000. Once the Israelis purchased the MD-500, an advanced helicopter gunship which they had helped to improve, the Jordanians, South Koreans, and Kenyans moved to purchase it instead of the German-made BO 105 and the French and British Gazelle.

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One of the reasons the Israelis do as well as they do in the military sphere is their talent for innovation and their technical expertise. In general, Israeli research-and-development procedures are quicker and cheaper than in the United States—partly because the Israelis, living as they do under the threat of imminent danger, are more flexible, and partly because their small size puts a limit on inhibiting regulations. Improvisation and short-cuts are the Israeli specialty, and they operate on a quick-reaction basis which permits crash programs not possible with the standard peacetime procedures prevailing in the U.S. Therefore, the U.S. armed forces have been able to benefit from Israeli developments whose licenses are later sold to American companies for larger production.

Recent examples include various types of mine-and obstacle-clearing equipment in which Israel is particularly advanced; the American SMAW warhead matched with an Israeli B-300 rocket launcher purchased by the Marines from McDonnell Douglas as an anti-fortification device; and the newly developed air filters for helicopters to keep sand particles out of the engines (an example of the dangers of working without filters is exemplified by the disastrous rescue raid over Iran in April 1980). An Engineering Fighting Vehicle for use by army engineers is also being produced in an unusual joint project.

More important than particular cases, however, is the wider application of Israeli innovations. The Israeli air force today faces a more complex challenge than its American counterpart. When an Israeli fighter plane takes off, it does not know whether it will confront Soviet, European, or American equipment. This complicated threat drives Israeli designers to a constant search for improvements and refinements, and it forces them always to probe the fringes of the latest art, to look forward to the next war rather than backward to the last one. Because of the close integration of Israeli developers with American corporations, the U.S. inevitably benefits.

The process works in the following way: the Israelis receive permission to purchase an American weapon—say, the F-15. In dealing with the company producing the weapon, they request particular features which the Pentagon has rejected, or they are offered features the Defense Department is not interested in developing. The Israelis are informed that if they are prepared to pay for the research-and-development costs, the American company will include it in the models sold to Israel. The Israelis agree, the item is developed, and the Israelis employ it. Once the weapon has been developed and tested, the Pentagon adopts it for American use (with obvious savings to the American taxpayer in comparison to a situation where the U.S. forces would have had to develop and test the item themselves).

A few recent examples of this process include: the conformal fuel tanks on the F-15; leading edge slats for the F-4 Phantom; an external fuel tank for the M-113; modification of the M-109 self-propelled artillery piece; a Head-Up Display and a weapons-delivery system for the A-4; bomb racks for the F-16; certain types of FLIR night-vision equipment; and a digital weapons-delivery system for the F-4.

Similarly, Israeli combat experiences have led to the improvement of American equipment—potentially saving American lives in the process and certainly cutting costs. Indeed, just realizing that a piece of equipment has a problem may be more critical than providing a solution.

Item: Israel discovered problems in the fuel pumps of the engine for the F-15 and F-16, and provided American engineers with ideas on how to deal with the difficulties. In all, the Israelis have made 27 substantial recommendations for changes in the F-15.

Item: The Israelis learned from combat use of the M-60 tank before the October 1973 war that its hydraulic fluid was highly flammable, thereby increasing casualties, and this discovery led to the adoption of measures to prevent such casualties in the future. Over the years Israel has made 114 modifications in the M-48 and M-60 tanks, many of which (such as improvements on tank air cleaners and the development of new cupolas for the M-48) have been adopted by the U.S. Army. In addition, the Israelis have been extremely successful in developing dry-clad storage for their tanks so that they can go for years without being checked or repaired and can be used suddenly in a crisis.

Item: Israeli combat experience has led to such changes as the decreased use of searchlights and the increased use of thermal sights for night fighting; the increased use of tanks and armored personnel carriers (APC’s) in tandem; improvement in command, control, and communications, facilitating the coordination of air, land, and sea operations down to the unit level; the use of electronic warfare in reconnaissance units and aerial electronic countermeasures.

There is evidence, however, that the U.S. military could benefit to an even greater degree than it already does from Israeli developments. For example, the Israelis recently perfected the land-navigation system (LANS) for tanks, facilitating their accuracy of navigation, and the position-and-azimuth-determining system (PADS) for the artillery corps. In the U.S., where development costs typically exceed Israeli expenses by 30 percent and the lead time is usually longer, neither of these systems has yet been built despite the expenditure of tens of millions of dollars. Similarly, since the Israelis have already deployed and proven the effectiveness of the mini-RPV, it would be more cost-effective to piggy-back on the first-generation Israeli innovation than to spend millions merely to equal the Israeli achievement.

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The facts speak for themselves. Israel is a unique and impressive ally. It influences political developments in its own area, causes the Soviets embarrassment and military difficulties, facilitates the evaluation of American weapons, conveys lessons which can be learned only from combat experience, provides intelligence on the region, and saves U.S. defense costs through innovations and modifications of U.S. weaponry. Despite claims that Israel is a strain on the U.S. treasury, the types of assistance it provides more than compensate for U.S. aid. After all, if Israeli experiences were worth only 2 percent of the annual U.S. defense budget, that would amount to over $4 billion.

Israel’s willingness to cooperate and its capacity to innovate suggest that the savings could be even higher if we were prepared to place the relationship with Jerusalem on a more solid footing. Instead, the strategic factors in the American-Israeli relationship are regularly neglected or made subservient to political disputes over such issues as West Bank settlement or withdrawal from Lebanon.

In Shakespeare’s King Lear the monarch foolishly relinquishes his kingdom to two daughters who flatter him with expansive but false promises of everlasting devotion while he disowns his one faithful daughter, Cordelia, because she will not stoop to pretenses. The analogy with America’s current Middle East policy is compelling. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which offer friendship but will not cooperate with U.S. defense or diplomatic efforts, are regarded as crucial allies, whereas Israel—which offers facilities and services—is progressively treated as a pariah, a candidate for economic sanctions and political alienation. King Lear destroyed his life, his family, and his kingdom because he could not judge between friend and foe. The moral for the United States is obvious.

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