Friday, September 24, 2010

On Eagles' Wings

The story of Israel's determination to survive is inextricably linked to the military aircraft deployed to defend its skies and take the battle to the enemy. A new chapter is now opening with the decision by Defense Minister Ehud Barak to approve, pending cabinet ratification, the purchase from the United States of twenty F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft at a base price of $96 million each. The manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, promises the new jet will be capable of penetrating the most sophisticated air defenses. Unfortunately, the plane is only now going into production and won't reach the Israel Air Force for at least five years—too late to play a role in any immediate solution to the Iranian nuclear threat.


The various eras of Israel's politico-military history can be limned through its planes. During the 1948-49 War of Independence, the front-line aircraft was the Sakeen, manufactured in Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia, procured in disassembled form, and brought to the country in defiance of an international arms embargo. Complemented by an odd assortment of other planes and heroic pilots (many from abroad), the Sakeen helped Israel achieve control over its own skies by the end of the war.

In the early 1950s, as the Soviet Empire turned sadistically anti-Semitic, Jerusalem had to look elsewhere for weaponry. Unable to establish a much-desired strategic relationship with Washington, it turned to the world market for military-surplus aircraft. These included the British-manufactured Spitfire and the American-made Mustang. Israel's first military jet, the British Meteor, was bought openly in 1953. All these saw the country through the 1956 Sinai campaign.

When realpolitik brought France and Israel into an early-1960s alliance, Jerusalem finally had a reliable flow of arms—most crucially, starting in 1962, the Mirage jet, which proved indispensable to victory in the 1967 war. But the French connection ended abruptly several days before the war when Charles de Gaulle declared a weapons embargo. Fortunately, it was then that the Johnson administration established the U.S. as Israel's main arms supplier, selling it, among other things, F-4 Phantom fighter bombers and A-4 Skyhawk ground-attack aircraft.

The American bond, initiated in earnest with the Kennedy administration's sale of Hawk anti-aircraft missiles, became an authentic "special relationship" rooted in shared values and mutual security interests. Israel fought the 1973 Yom Kippur War largely with U.S.-supplied equipment. By the 1980s, the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Falcon fighter-bomber, along with the E-2 Hawkeye Airborne Early Warning system, had joined the arsenal.

Indeed, the sale of military aircraft came to be a barometer for the general health of the Washington-Jerusalem relationship. A frosty Carter administration, piqued over Israeli policies in Lebanon and the West Bank, rejected a request to co-produce the F-16 and prevented Israel from selling its Kfir jet (built with U.S. components) to Ecuador. The use of F-16s and F-15s in Israel's 1981 bombing of Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor at Osirak elicited threats of an arms embargo from the Reagan administration.

Israel Aerospace Industries, established to lessen the country's dependency on outside sources, would become a world-class manufacturer and exporter of weaponry. But in 1987 Israel made the fateful decision not to proceed with production of its own multirole Lavi fighter—a choice that Moshe Arens, a former defense minister, continues to maintain was short-sighted: had the Lavi been perfected, he asserts, it would today have obviated the need to purchase the F-35. Other critics of the new F-35 purchase worry that it will beggar the defense budget; some even argue that now should be the moment for Israel to make the quantum leap to unmanned strategic aircraft.

While Israel produces its own AWACS planes, plus a variety of aerial drones, its efforts at self-sufficiency are constrained by its small size, limited resources, and ultimate reliance on Washington. With its population exposed to an unprecedented ballistic-missile threat, Jerusalem has needed to collaborate with the U.S. on perfecting the Arrow defense system and to deploy U.S.-made Hawk and Patriot surface-to-air missiles. Nor could the soon-to-be-deployed Iron Dome, designed to intercept short-range rockets and mortars, have been manufactured without U.S. support.

Clearly, in all these cases the U.S. has benefited greatly from the lessons of Israel's experience in wartime. But whatever the merits of the current decision to go with the F-35, this latest prospective sale also illuminates Israel's continuing, vital, and enduring—albeit dependent—relationship with the United States.

-- August 2010

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