Commentary Magazine


Topic: F-16

Sharansky: Reagan Right, Critics Wrong

Ronald Reagan, who would have been 100 this Sunday, had an instinctive affinity for Jews and Israel. As an actor who spent decades in the heavily Jewish environment of Hollywood and who counted scores of Jews among his friends and colleagues, he moved easily in pro-Israel circles. Both as a private citizen and as governor of California, he was a familiar sight and a favored speaker at various functions for Israel.

“I’ve believed many things in my life,” Reagan states in his memoirs, “but no conviction I’ve ever had has been stronger than my belief that the United States must ensure the survival of Israel.”

Reagan inaugurated what Israeli journalists Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman termed the “Solid Gold Era” in U.S.-Israel relations. Even so — and this underscores the inevitability of disagreement between Israel and even the friendliest of U.S. presidents — he found himself engaged in a series of tiffs with the Israeli government.

The earliest friction concerned Israel’s destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in June 1981. The U.S. voted with the rest of the UN Security Council to condemn the action and briefly held up delivery of some F-16 aircraft to Israel, but there were no permanent ramifications.

“Technically,” Reagan notes in his memoirs, “Israel had violated an agreement with us not to use U.S.-made weapons for offensive purposes, and some cabinet members wanted me to lean hard on Israel because it had broken this pledge. … I sympathized with [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin’s motivations and privately believed we should give him the benefit of the doubt.” Read More

Ronald Reagan, who would have been 100 this Sunday, had an instinctive affinity for Jews and Israel. As an actor who spent decades in the heavily Jewish environment of Hollywood and who counted scores of Jews among his friends and colleagues, he moved easily in pro-Israel circles. Both as a private citizen and as governor of California, he was a familiar sight and a favored speaker at various functions for Israel.

“I’ve believed many things in my life,” Reagan states in his memoirs, “but no conviction I’ve ever had has been stronger than my belief that the United States must ensure the survival of Israel.”

Reagan inaugurated what Israeli journalists Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman termed the “Solid Gold Era” in U.S.-Israel relations. Even so — and this underscores the inevitability of disagreement between Israel and even the friendliest of U.S. presidents — he found himself engaged in a series of tiffs with the Israeli government.

The earliest friction concerned Israel’s destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in June 1981. The U.S. voted with the rest of the UN Security Council to condemn the action and briefly held up delivery of some F-16 aircraft to Israel, but there were no permanent ramifications.

“Technically,” Reagan notes in his memoirs, “Israel had violated an agreement with us not to use U.S.-made weapons for offensive purposes, and some cabinet members wanted me to lean hard on Israel because it had broken this pledge. … I sympathized with [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin’s motivations and privately believed we should give him the benefit of the doubt.”

Later in 1981, a bitter fight was played out in Congress between the White House and supporters of Israel over Reagan’s determination to follow through on the Carter administration’s decision to sell Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft (AWACS) to Saudi Arabia. The sale was finally approved by a narrow margin, but the confrontation left bruised feelings and egos on both sides.

Ironically, Israeli military leaders were never in the forefront of the AWACS opposition; according to Raviv and Melman, “the commanders of the Israeli air force — the officers most directly concerned — were willing to live with AWACS flying over Saudi Arabia. They did not see them as a serious threat to Israel’s security.”

The U.S.-Israel relationship was strong enough by then to survive a series of mini-crises during the Reagan era, including Washington’s dismay at the scope of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon; the failure of the so-called Reagan Plan, which called for a freeze on Israeli settlements and the eventual creation of a quasi-independent Palestinian entity; the visit by Reagan to a German cemetery that contained the remains of SS soldiers; the Iran-Contra scandal, in which Israel played a major role; the arrest and conviction of an American citizen, Jonathan Pollard, on charges of spying for Israel; and the administration’s 1988 decision to talk to the PLO after Yasir Arafat made the requisite noises about recognizing Israel.

Through it all, Reagan provided more military and financial aid to Israel than any of his predecessors. Washington also worked closer with Israel on the economic front, and in 1985 the administration signed a landmark Free Trade Area agreement, long sought by Israel, which resulted in a hefty boost in Israeli exports to the U.S.

Beyond the Middle East, the plight of Soviet Jews was bound to strike a sympathetic chord with someone as unbendingly anti-Communist as Reagan.

“The Soviet leaders,” recalled former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir,  “told me that every time they met with [Secretary of State George] Shultz, he raised the issue of Soviet Jewry.”

The Reagan administration was instrumental in gaining the release in 1986 of prominent Jewish dissident Natan Sharansky, imprisoned for nine years on trumped-up treason charges. Sharansky has written of his reaction when, in 1983, confined to a tiny cell in a prison near the Siberian border, he saw on the front page of Pravda that Reagan — much to the ridicule and outrage of American and European liberals — had labeled the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”

As Sharansky describes it:

Tapping on walls and talking through toilets, word of Reagan’s “provocation” quickly spread throughout the prison. We dissidents were ecstatic. Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth — a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us. I never imagined that three years later I would be in the White House telling this story to the president. … Reagan was right and his critics were wrong.

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The F-35 and the Israel-Obama Relationship

Commenting on Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s decision last week to buy 20 American-made F-35 fighter jets, Elliot Jager of Jewish Ideas Daily said it “illuminates Israel’s continuing, vital, and enduring — albeit dependent — relationship with the United States.” That is undoubtedly true: Washington has been Israel’s principal arms supplier for over four decades, and those arms are crucial for the country’s defense.

Ironically, however, the purchase also illuminates the nadir to which the relationship has fallen under the current administration. Barack Obama’s aides have tried to divert attention from their boss’s efforts to put “daylight” between America and Israel by insisting that on the all-important issue of security, “President Obama has taken what was already a strong U.S.-Israel defense relationship, and broadened and deepened it across the board,” as Dan Shapiro of the National Security Council told the Anti-Defamation League in May.

But in reality, Washington has attached unprecedented restrictions to the F-35 sale — restrictions so severe that Israel’s defense establishment agonized for months over whether to sign the deal, and ultimately opted to buy only 20 planes instead of the 75 the Israel Air Force originally sought.

First, as Haaretz reported last month, the U.S. refused to supply a test aircraft as part of the deal for the first time in 40 years. From the Phantom in 1969 through the F-16I six years ago, every previous American sale of fighters to Israel has included an experimental aircraft that Israel can use to test new systems or weapons it is considering installing in order to upgrade the planes or adapt them to particular missions. Effectively, the paper said, this refusal means “upgrades will not be implemented during the plane’s service in the IAF.”

Second, Washington initially refused to let any Israeli systems be installed in the plane, and finally reluctantly agreed to what various Israeli reports described as “minor changes” or “a few” systems (though holding out the carrot that more might be allowed if Israel ultimately commissions more planes). This, too, is unprecedented. Previous deals have given Israel great latitude to have its own systems installed on American-made aircraft, and have also allowed other countries to install Israeli systems — with the result that “between 10 percent and 15 percent of every new F-16 made in America, for instance, consists of Israeli systems.”

The restrictions so incensed Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz that he has appealed the purchase to the cabinet. His ministry says they would deal “a major blow to Israel’s defense industry” and particularly “hurt development of new Israeli missile systems.” On an issue as militarily important as purchasing new fighters, Steinitz has no chance of prevailing against Barak. But for a senior minister to publicly challenge such a deal is itself unusual.

It’s a testament to the depth of Israel’s support both in Congress and among the American people that even a hostile president only dares impair the security relationship at the margins, where he can hope it won’t be noticed. But precisely because the F-35 restrictions will fly below most Americans’ radars, they’re a telling indication of where Obama’s heart really lies.

Commenting on Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s decision last week to buy 20 American-made F-35 fighter jets, Elliot Jager of Jewish Ideas Daily said it “illuminates Israel’s continuing, vital, and enduring — albeit dependent — relationship with the United States.” That is undoubtedly true: Washington has been Israel’s principal arms supplier for over four decades, and those arms are crucial for the country’s defense.

Ironically, however, the purchase also illuminates the nadir to which the relationship has fallen under the current administration. Barack Obama’s aides have tried to divert attention from their boss’s efforts to put “daylight” between America and Israel by insisting that on the all-important issue of security, “President Obama has taken what was already a strong U.S.-Israel defense relationship, and broadened and deepened it across the board,” as Dan Shapiro of the National Security Council told the Anti-Defamation League in May.

But in reality, Washington has attached unprecedented restrictions to the F-35 sale — restrictions so severe that Israel’s defense establishment agonized for months over whether to sign the deal, and ultimately opted to buy only 20 planes instead of the 75 the Israel Air Force originally sought.

First, as Haaretz reported last month, the U.S. refused to supply a test aircraft as part of the deal for the first time in 40 years. From the Phantom in 1969 through the F-16I six years ago, every previous American sale of fighters to Israel has included an experimental aircraft that Israel can use to test new systems or weapons it is considering installing in order to upgrade the planes or adapt them to particular missions. Effectively, the paper said, this refusal means “upgrades will not be implemented during the plane’s service in the IAF.”

Second, Washington initially refused to let any Israeli systems be installed in the plane, and finally reluctantly agreed to what various Israeli reports described as “minor changes” or “a few” systems (though holding out the carrot that more might be allowed if Israel ultimately commissions more planes). This, too, is unprecedented. Previous deals have given Israel great latitude to have its own systems installed on American-made aircraft, and have also allowed other countries to install Israeli systems — with the result that “between 10 percent and 15 percent of every new F-16 made in America, for instance, consists of Israeli systems.”

The restrictions so incensed Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz that he has appealed the purchase to the cabinet. His ministry says they would deal “a major blow to Israel’s defense industry” and particularly “hurt development of new Israeli missile systems.” On an issue as militarily important as purchasing new fighters, Steinitz has no chance of prevailing against Barak. But for a senior minister to publicly challenge such a deal is itself unusual.

It’s a testament to the depth of Israel’s support both in Congress and among the American people that even a hostile president only dares impair the security relationship at the margins, where he can hope it won’t be noticed. But precisely because the F-35 restrictions will fly below most Americans’ radars, they’re a telling indication of where Obama’s heart really lies.

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Name Game Endgame

The United States continues to position itself on the losing side in the increasingly heated Taiwan name game—which appears to be approaching a resolution that Washington and Beijing will dislike, but be at a loss to handle.

Reports by Agence France Presse indicate that the U.S.’s de facto Ambassador to Taipei, Stephen Young, has reiterated Washington’s opposition to the UN referendum to be held in March of next year. Although Washington is coy about its reasons for opposition, they rest on the long-standing assumption that whatever anyone else does, the Taiwan government will insist its island is part of China, by using the official name “Republic of China.” The referendum would call for the name “Taiwan” to be used in applying for UN membership, which suggests no connection to China. Therefore Washington is dead set against it—and, even as it encourages the island to improve its defenses, is withholding sales of necessary F-16’s in an attempt to exert pressure.

Washington has always relied on the (formerly dictatorial) party of Chiang Kai-shek, officially known as “The Chinese Kuomintang,” but now a democratic player in Taiwan politics, to hold the line on Taiwan’s Chineseness. But that party is now reconsidering its position, for the simple reason that to be pro-China in democratic Taiwan is electoral poison. Thus, the China Post, a pro-China paper, has just run an editorial suggesting that voters will ask Kuomintang candidates, “If you love Taiwan and are loyal to it, why do you have the name China in your party’s title?” Calling this an “Achilles’ heel,” the newspaper urges that presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou might do well to change that name to “Taiwan” Kuomintang before the elections (in November and March). Otherwise, they argue, the China issue could lead the party to yet another loss.

Sooner or later, we may be certain, the Kuomintang will heed that advice and remake itself as a purely Taiwanese party. When that happens, the basic plank of U.S. China policy will collapse. As was stated in the Shanghai Communique of February 28, 1972, published after Richard Nixon’s pathbreaking visit to China:

The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.

This was clever wording at a time when the dictatorship in Taipei insisted that Taiwan was part of China. But under a less repressive regime Taiwanese are expressing their true feelings, and even the party that ran the dictatorship is on track to go Taiwanese. The United States will soon find no one on the Taiwan side of the strait to “maintain that there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.” Washington and Beijing will have to adjust to this new situation. But neither has any idea how.

The United States continues to position itself on the losing side in the increasingly heated Taiwan name game—which appears to be approaching a resolution that Washington and Beijing will dislike, but be at a loss to handle.

Reports by Agence France Presse indicate that the U.S.’s de facto Ambassador to Taipei, Stephen Young, has reiterated Washington’s opposition to the UN referendum to be held in March of next year. Although Washington is coy about its reasons for opposition, they rest on the long-standing assumption that whatever anyone else does, the Taiwan government will insist its island is part of China, by using the official name “Republic of China.” The referendum would call for the name “Taiwan” to be used in applying for UN membership, which suggests no connection to China. Therefore Washington is dead set against it—and, even as it encourages the island to improve its defenses, is withholding sales of necessary F-16’s in an attempt to exert pressure.

Washington has always relied on the (formerly dictatorial) party of Chiang Kai-shek, officially known as “The Chinese Kuomintang,” but now a democratic player in Taiwan politics, to hold the line on Taiwan’s Chineseness. But that party is now reconsidering its position, for the simple reason that to be pro-China in democratic Taiwan is electoral poison. Thus, the China Post, a pro-China paper, has just run an editorial suggesting that voters will ask Kuomintang candidates, “If you love Taiwan and are loyal to it, why do you have the name China in your party’s title?” Calling this an “Achilles’ heel,” the newspaper urges that presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou might do well to change that name to “Taiwan” Kuomintang before the elections (in November and March). Otherwise, they argue, the China issue could lead the party to yet another loss.

Sooner or later, we may be certain, the Kuomintang will heed that advice and remake itself as a purely Taiwanese party. When that happens, the basic plank of U.S. China policy will collapse. As was stated in the Shanghai Communique of February 28, 1972, published after Richard Nixon’s pathbreaking visit to China:

The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.

This was clever wording at a time when the dictatorship in Taipei insisted that Taiwan was part of China. But under a less repressive regime Taiwanese are expressing their true feelings, and even the party that ran the dictatorship is on track to go Taiwanese. The United States will soon find no one on the Taiwan side of the strait to “maintain that there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.” Washington and Beijing will have to adjust to this new situation. But neither has any idea how.

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The Future of Afghanistan

Trying to gauge the state of the conflict in Afghanistan from thousands of miles away is extraordinarily difficult and I hesitate to draw any firm conclusions from recent press reports. But even discounting for the “bad news” bias in most articles, their general tenor is cause for concern.

This article notes that hundreds of Taliban fighters are massing near Kandahar, the largest city in southern Afghanistan, for the first time since 2001.

This article notes that the warlords who once made up the Northern Alliance are hording their weapons and not complying with promises to disarm militias.

This article notes that the drug trade in Afghanistan is booming, with “a 17 percent rise in poppy cultivation from 2006 to 2007, and a 34 percent rise in opium production.”

• And this article notes that more foreign jihadists are infiltrating Afghanistan, and they are even more bloodthirsty and savage than the native Taliban. “Foreign fighters,” writes David Rohde of the New York Times, “are coming from Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Chechnya, various Arab countries, and perhaps also Turkey and western China.”

Admittedly, there is a positive aspect to this story—the foreigners are needed to fill Taliban ranks because of the losses they have suffered in fighting with coalition forces. But the fact that replacements are able to infiltrate so easily is a major problem, insofar as one of the major factors determining the success or failure of an insurgency is whether or not the counterinsurgents are able to seal the border to prevent the rebels from gaining reinforcements and supplies.

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Trying to gauge the state of the conflict in Afghanistan from thousands of miles away is extraordinarily difficult and I hesitate to draw any firm conclusions from recent press reports. But even discounting for the “bad news” bias in most articles, their general tenor is cause for concern.

This article notes that hundreds of Taliban fighters are massing near Kandahar, the largest city in southern Afghanistan, for the first time since 2001.

This article notes that the warlords who once made up the Northern Alliance are hording their weapons and not complying with promises to disarm militias.

This article notes that the drug trade in Afghanistan is booming, with “a 17 percent rise in poppy cultivation from 2006 to 2007, and a 34 percent rise in opium production.”

• And this article notes that more foreign jihadists are infiltrating Afghanistan, and they are even more bloodthirsty and savage than the native Taliban. “Foreign fighters,” writes David Rohde of the New York Times, “are coming from Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Chechnya, various Arab countries, and perhaps also Turkey and western China.”

Admittedly, there is a positive aspect to this story—the foreigners are needed to fill Taliban ranks because of the losses they have suffered in fighting with coalition forces. But the fact that replacements are able to infiltrate so easily is a major problem, insofar as one of the major factors determining the success or failure of an insurgency is whether or not the counterinsurgents are able to seal the border to prevent the rebels from gaining reinforcements and supplies.

So far attempts to seal the borders between Afghanistan and Iran and Pakistan have not borne much fruit. This is to be expected because of the difficult terrain involved, and because the same tribesmen are to be found on both sides of the frontier, which has always been more of a theoretical construct than an on-the-ground reality. It doesn’t help that both Iran and Pakistan appear to be involved actively in aiding the Taliban.

The case of Pakistan is particularly vexing because, unlike Iran, it is nominally an American ally, yet its armed forces have been either unwilling or unable to take strong action against the Taliban and their supporters, who have come to dominate the border areas.

This article raises questions about whether the Pakistani military is making good use of some $11 billion in assistance received from the United States since 2001. Much of the assistance has gone for high-ticket items like F-16’s that aren’t very useful for fighting shadowy insurgents; Pakistan wants them primarily for reasons of prestige and for saber-rattling with India. But the primary problem is summed up by a scholar:

“U.S. equipment is not being used ‘in a sustained way,'” said Seth Jones, a Rand Corp. researcher who recently visited the region. “The army is not very effective, and there have been elements of the government that have worked with the Taliban in the tribal areas in the past,” making them ambivalent about the current fight against those forces, he said.

This really comes down to an issue of Pakistani politics. Pervez Musharraf, the military chief and dictator, repeatedly has promised to crack down on the Taliban and other extremist Islamic groups, but he has not delivered enough results. Benazir Bhutto, the opposition leader who has returned recently from exile, is talking a tougher game. As this New York Times article notes:

Using the news media unabashedly, Ms. Bhutto has been outspoken in particular against terrorism, saying things that few local politicians dare to against the religious and jihadi groups. She is the only politician in Pakistan saying loudly and clearly that suicide bombing is against the teaching of Islam. She has also attacked conservatives in the government, including officials close to the President, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, accusing them of aiding and abetting extremists, and supporting the bombers who attacked her.

This kind of talk is brave and encouraging. The question is whether Bhutto (assuming she gets that far) would be able effectively to carry out an anti-terrorist agenda in office, given that she would be reliant on the very same armed forces that have so often collaborated with the Taliban in the past and that have repeatedly undermined civilian leaders, including Bhutto herself. American leverage is limited here; we’ll have to let the Pakistanis sort out their own problems.

But we should continue to make clear our commitment to a restoration of democracy and our willingness, à la Barack Obama, to act unilaterally, if necessary, to hit terrorist targets in Pakistan. If we can’t do a better job of stopping the terrorists in Pakistan, Afghanistan’s future will not be terribly promising.

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Taiwan’s Pride

The plan for Taiwan’s first national day military parade in sixteen years is much in the news today, notably on the front page of Thursday’s Financial Times. The reason is that rumor suggests the country’s new, indigenously-developed cruise missile, capable of hitting targets as distant as Shanghai, may be displayed publicly for the first time during the parade

We may confidently expect much misinformation to follow in the media, with the most important falsehood being an assertion the development of the cruise missile and Taiwan’s increasingly capable anti-air and anti-ship weapons, are a “provocation” against China, being cynically engineered by the unpopular current President Chen Shuibian for his own political purposes. So it is important to understand that Taiwan’s quest for defense capabilities beyond ambiguous statements by the United States has deep roots.

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The plan for Taiwan’s first national day military parade in sixteen years is much in the news today, notably on the front page of Thursday’s Financial Times. The reason is that rumor suggests the country’s new, indigenously-developed cruise missile, capable of hitting targets as distant as Shanghai, may be displayed publicly for the first time during the parade

We may confidently expect much misinformation to follow in the media, with the most important falsehood being an assertion the development of the cruise missile and Taiwan’s increasingly capable anti-air and anti-ship weapons, are a “provocation” against China, being cynically engineered by the unpopular current President Chen Shuibian for his own political purposes. So it is important to understand that Taiwan’s quest for defense capabilities beyond ambiguous statements by the United States has deep roots.

Taiwan’s indigenous self-defense programs date back to the 1950’s, when the dictatorial Kuomintang of Chiang Kai-shek was firmly in control and current President Chen Shuibian (born 1951) was a toddler. Important steps included the foundation of the science- and engineering-focused National Tsing Hua University, in 1956, and the establishment of the Chung Shan Institute of Science and Technology, a military research center, in 1969.

Taiwan was clearly influenced by Israeli steps to ensure an indigenous defense capability. The first Taiwanese missiles are thought to have been based on the Israeli Gabriel (1962). From these steps flowed development of a carefully-considered array of defensive and counter-strike missiles as well as a nuclear program that made major advances before the United States forced its shut down in 1988.

My own view is that, judged militarily and strategically, such capabilities are essential to Taiwan. They give the country the credible ability to stop a Chinese attack on their own. I believe, moreover, that they will help stabilize the situation in the Strait by restoring some of the balance that was lost when the United States ended its military alliance in 1979.

Whether flaunting these new weapons in a politicized parade makes sense is, however, another question. (My own inclination would be to maintain a low profile and stress the country’s powerful desire for peace.) But the insistence of the 23 million Taiwanese people that they be recognized internationally is bipartisan. Furthermore, being quiet and low key (as we Americans invariably advise) has gotten them nothing, other than a steadily-building deployment of Chinese ballistic missiles targeted on them from just across the Strait, rigid exclusion from the international community, and American dithering over whether supply even of F-16’s is appropriate.

The current welling-up of national feeling in Taiwan is correctly understood not as the product of ploys by a president whose popularity has been plunging (as Washington regularly suggests). Rather it is exactly the sort of rooted and organic nationalism with which history and political scientists have long been familiar. It should tell us something that the person charged with planning the October 10th celebrations and parade is not a Chen Shuibian loyalist, but the speaker of Taiwan’s legislative branch, Wang Jin-pyng, from the opposition Kuomintang party.

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What the Airstrikes Mean

There has been a good deal of informed speculation in the press regarding the Israeli Air Force’s Sept. 6 raid on a suspected nuclear development site in Syria. (See, for instance, Bret Stephens’s excellent column in the Wall Street Journal.) Two aspects of the raid haven’t received enough attention, however.

First, the fact that the Israeli Air Force was able to catch the Syrians by surprise. There is no indication that any Israeli aircraft were shot down or even damaged. This is pretty significant: Syria has been making an effort to upgrade its air defenses in recent years by buying Russian-made surface-to-air missiles. Yet Israeli F-15 and F-16 fighter-bombers were still able to strike deep into Syria unscathed.

Second, Syria has not (so far at least) mounted any kind of retaliation that we know of. Perhaps some counter-blow—possibly in the form of a terrorist attack against Israelis or even non-Israeli Jews—is coming. But so far the Syrian response can only be described as very muted. Perhaps the Syrians realize that, if they escalate the conflict, Israel can do far worse to Syria than Syria can do to Israel.

What do these two facts combined mean? They suggest that both Syria and its Iranian patrons (who have also been upgrading their air defenses with Russian help) remain very vulnerable to air attack by a sophisticated state like Israel or the United States. That increases the pressure on these “axis of evil” members to rethink their continuing efforts to facilitate attacks on Western forces in Iraq and to develop nuclear-weapons. They must know that whatever the Israeli Air Force can do, the U.S. Air Force can do on much bigger scale. If anything will lead them to negotiate seriously, that is it.

Even so, I can’t say I have much hope they will mend their ways until they see that the U.S. has not only the capability to hurt them but also the willingness to do so. As the Journal’s editorial board argues today, Tehran has been told it will pay a price for killing Americans, but it never has.”

There has been a good deal of informed speculation in the press regarding the Israeli Air Force’s Sept. 6 raid on a suspected nuclear development site in Syria. (See, for instance, Bret Stephens’s excellent column in the Wall Street Journal.) Two aspects of the raid haven’t received enough attention, however.

First, the fact that the Israeli Air Force was able to catch the Syrians by surprise. There is no indication that any Israeli aircraft were shot down or even damaged. This is pretty significant: Syria has been making an effort to upgrade its air defenses in recent years by buying Russian-made surface-to-air missiles. Yet Israeli F-15 and F-16 fighter-bombers were still able to strike deep into Syria unscathed.

Second, Syria has not (so far at least) mounted any kind of retaliation that we know of. Perhaps some counter-blow—possibly in the form of a terrorist attack against Israelis or even non-Israeli Jews—is coming. But so far the Syrian response can only be described as very muted. Perhaps the Syrians realize that, if they escalate the conflict, Israel can do far worse to Syria than Syria can do to Israel.

What do these two facts combined mean? They suggest that both Syria and its Iranian patrons (who have also been upgrading their air defenses with Russian help) remain very vulnerable to air attack by a sophisticated state like Israel or the United States. That increases the pressure on these “axis of evil” members to rethink their continuing efforts to facilitate attacks on Western forces in Iraq and to develop nuclear-weapons. They must know that whatever the Israeli Air Force can do, the U.S. Air Force can do on much bigger scale. If anything will lead them to negotiate seriously, that is it.

Even so, I can’t say I have much hope they will mend their ways until they see that the U.S. has not only the capability to hurt them but also the willingness to do so. As the Journal’s editorial board argues today, Tehran has been told it will pay a price for killing Americans, but it never has.”

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Striking Iran: Cakewalk or Slam-Dunk?

In 1981, Israel hit Iraq’s nuclear facility at Osirak. Eight F-16 fighter-bombers and eight F-15 fighters swooped in to carry out a precision strike that set back Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions by more than a decade.

As the whole world knows, Israel now faces a similar challenge from Iran, which has an ambitious nuclear program of its own, and whose president has threatened to wipe Israel from the map. Unlike Osirak, however, the Iranian program is housed in multiple sites, with the most critical ones hardened against attack from the air, and all of them situated much further away from Israel than Osirak was.

A key question therefore is whether Israel possesses the military means to attack the Iranian facility on its own, or whether it would depend upon the far mightier United States to help it or do the job in its entirety. This question is being analyzed in defense ministries and intelligence agencies around the world. But the central issues have been laid out for the public in great detail by two MIT military analysts, Whitney Raas and Austin Long, in a paper that appears in the spring issue of International Security.

One of the problems entailed in such a raid would be dealing with the uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz, which Raas and Long call “one of the most difficult and important targets.” It is 23 meters underground and covered by multiple layers of concrete, such that “only a very robust strike could hope to destroy or at least render unusable” the centrifuges that it houses. Read More

In 1981, Israel hit Iraq’s nuclear facility at Osirak. Eight F-16 fighter-bombers and eight F-15 fighters swooped in to carry out a precision strike that set back Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions by more than a decade.

As the whole world knows, Israel now faces a similar challenge from Iran, which has an ambitious nuclear program of its own, and whose president has threatened to wipe Israel from the map. Unlike Osirak, however, the Iranian program is housed in multiple sites, with the most critical ones hardened against attack from the air, and all of them situated much further away from Israel than Osirak was.

A key question therefore is whether Israel possesses the military means to attack the Iranian facility on its own, or whether it would depend upon the far mightier United States to help it or do the job in its entirety. This question is being analyzed in defense ministries and intelligence agencies around the world. But the central issues have been laid out for the public in great detail by two MIT military analysts, Whitney Raas and Austin Long, in a paper that appears in the spring issue of International Security.

One of the problems entailed in such a raid would be dealing with the uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz, which Raas and Long call “one of the most difficult and important targets.” It is 23 meters underground and covered by multiple layers of concrete, such that “only a very robust strike could hope to destroy or at least render unusable” the centrifuges that it houses.

To attack such a target, Israel would need to use penetrating warheads that are either “delay-fused bombs that have been modified to have a more ‘pointed’ shape and extensively structurally reinforced,” or even more advanced  warheads that “detonate in stages to increase penetration.” To destroy Natanz effectively, one technique, write Raas and Long, would be to use such weapons

targeted on the same aimpoint but separated slightly in release time to “burrow” into the target. Essentially one bomb hits the crater made by the previous weapon, a technique contemplated by the U.S. Air Force in the first Gulf war. This takes advantage of the extremely high accuracy of LGB’s [laser-guided bombs] in combination with a penetrating warhead. The IAF [Israeli Air Force] appears to have purchased penetrating LGB’s with this technique in mind. General Eitan Ben-Elyahu, former commander of the IAF and a participant in the Osirak strike, commented on this method of attacking hardened facilities in Jane’s Defense Weekly: “Even if one bomb would not suffice to penetrate, we could guide other bombs directly to the hole created by the previous ones and eventually destroy any target.”

Is Israel going to strike Iran? We do not yet know the answer, and there are many imponderables, including its calculation of whether the U.S. will strike first and its additional calculation of Tehran’s likely response.

Not only does Iran have long-range missiles but it also has Hizballah cells all over the world poised to carry out terror missions in the event of an attack. We ourselves are not exempt; according to the State Department’s 2006 annual report on terrorism, Hizballah has “established cells in Europe, Africa, South America, North America, and Asia.” If that were not enough, FBI Director Robert Mueller has confirmed that Hizballah “retains the capability to strike in the U.S.”

In response to Israeli attacks on its leaders in the early 1990’s, Hizballah, in separate incidents, bombed the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29, and the Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, killing 85. Of course, once Iran has nuclear weapons, we would not be worrying about the lives of hundreds but the lives of hundreds of thousands and even millions. The dangers posed to Israel and to the rest of the world would thus seem to be intolerable, except of course to some of the writers at Vanity Fair—see my Learning to Love the Islamic Bomb.

However one judges Israeli intentions vis-a-vis Iran, the Raas-Long paper is of the view that the Jewish state has the capability to go it alone. Their conviction is that despite all the complexities of the Iranian target set, the advent of precision-guided munitions means that such an assault today would appear “to be no more risky than the earlier attack on Osirak.”

Of course, it should be obvious, at the same time, that such a military operation would be neither a slam-dunk nor a cakewalk. Thus, one does not have to be a Vanity Fair writer, or to love the Islamic bomb, to see that Israel’s decision, whatever it is, will be one of the biggest rolls of the dice in the sixty-year history of the Jewish state.

 

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