Since Congress first mandated military aid to Israel in 1971, the United States has provided the country nearly $100 billion in assistance. In 2008, Washington’s commitment to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME) over its regional adversaries was formally written into U.S. law. That close military cooperation is set to intensify following last week’s visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House, where he and President Barack Obama discussed a new security package in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal.
The details of this package have not been unveiled but reports indicate that Israel hopes to increase the annual foreign military financing from $3 billion to $5 billion when the current 10-year agreement expires in 2017. Jerusalem has also disclosed some of the big-ticket military hardware it seeks to acquire. Not surprisingly, the wish list includes items that would boost their ability to carry out a long-range strike operation on Iran:
More F-35s: Israel has ordered 33 F-35 stealth fighters, carrying the hefty price tag of nearly $6 billion. As part of the new package, Israeli leaders are hoping for even more F-35s, since their air force needs to replace nearly 200 aging F-16s. Proponents of the F-35 Lightning II hail it as the ultimate advanced multirole fighter, one which will maintain Israel’s edge in the air since it will be the “only nation in the region” to operate it (if you ignore Turkey).
However, the fighter has hit a number of snags in its development because the complexity of its software. Additionally, the F-35 suffers from some performance shortfalls due to compromises made in its design to achieve stealth.
For Israel, the F-35 could be key to striking targets deep within enemy territory, protected by an advanced integrated air defense system. While the Israeli Air Force (IAF) has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to do so without stealth aircraft, having stealth capability would minimize the risks. However, as powers like Russia and China develop the technology to counter stealth and these systems proliferate, Jerusalem may find that those pricy F-35s lack the edge it seeks.
V-22 Osprey: The V-22 Osprey is a tilt-rotor transport aircraft that can take off and land vertically like a helicopter, but fly fast and far like a fixed-wing plane. Its unique design gives its operators the capability to quickly insert or retrieve personnel far from base. In a hypothetic scenario where Israel attempts to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, the V-22 would be vital to rescuing downed pilots or conducting a special operations raid on hardened facilities which cannot be bombed from the air. Israel had requested six Ospreys in January 2014 but was forced to delay their procurement due to budget constraints resulting from that summer’s Gaza war and the decision to prioritize the acquisition of F-35s.
KC-46 Pegasus: Israel’s small fleet of Boeing KC-707 aerial refueling tankers are old – in some cases four decades old. While some have received upgrades to keep them operational, the tankers need to be replaced for the IAF to retain its long-range strike capability. Israel decided several years ago that it would purchase whichever aircraft won the U.S. Air Force’s KC-X tanker competition. Despite delays and controversy Boeing’s KC-46 won out, taking its first test flight in September. While the KC-46 has no lethal capabilities, it will preserve the IAF’s ability to hit targets at long distances.
Bunker busters: If Israel is forced to take unilateral action against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear sites, it is going to need bunker buster bombs because many of Tehran’s facilities are buried below layers of reinforced concrete or earth. The Fordow nuclear-enrichment complex is believe to be buried at least 260 feet below a mountain. The most effective bunker buster the U.S. has provided to Israel, the GBU-28, can only penetrate 100 feet of earth or 20 feet of solid concrete. These could be effective against Hamas or Hezbollah tunnel systems, but not Iran’s nuclear program.
The U.S. has also developed deeper-penetrating bombs including the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator, or MOP, which can strike as deep as 200 feet before detonating. Multiple MOPs striking the same point could, in theory, weaken and potentially breach Fordow. However, Israel possess no aircraft capable of delivering the massive MOP. Some former officials have floated the idea of loaning American B-52 heavy bombers to Israel, as the U.S. would never give up one of its few B-2 stealth bombers, even to a close ally. But given the cost of supporting such aircraft, their vulnerability in a contested airspace, and the potential blowback an Israeli strike would have on U.S. forces in the region, it is unlikely Washington would agree to loan out a nuclear-capable bomber to Israel.
F-15SE Silent Eagle: Owing to the hefty price tag of the F-35 and concerns over its lackluster performance, Israel is reportedly requesting more F-15 fighters. The F-15 comes in multiple variants. Israel already has F-15Cs – dedicated air-superiority fighters (the IAF modified theirs to also carry bombs) – and F-15Is, which are Israeli modified versions of the F-15E Strike Eagle fighter-bomber. Some reports suggest Israel wants the most modern variant – the F-15SE Silent Eagle. That model incorporates all the proven performance and reliability of the F-15E but with upgraded sensors and alterations to reduce its radar signature. Though not as stealthy as the F-35, it provides added opportunities to evade detection.
The desire for more F-15s is welcome news for Boeing, which has been struggling to find new F-15 buyers to keep the production line open. Ironically, if not for the Saudis’ $29-billion order of F-15SAs in 2011 – a deal Israel opposed for QME reasons – F-15 production would likely already be closed and development costs for the F-15SE would have been Israel’s to pick up.
What should be on the list
Israel’s wish list will likely keep the IAF dominant as its Middle East rivals import a steady stream of advanced military hardware, largely out of fear of Iran. Still, it inevitably leaves leave some vulnerabilities unaddressed. Some additional items that should be considered include:
Centurion – During the 2014 Gaza war, the leading killer of Israelis was not Hamas rockets but smaller shorter-range mortars along the Israeli frontier. Because Iron Dome is incapable of intercepting mortars, the IDF should acquire the Centurion, a land-based version of the Phalanx close-in weapon system, which the U.S. military adapted to protect its bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.
F-15C 2040 – Even with the addition of F-35s and F-15SEs, Israel’s fleet will have too few aircraft compete with rival fighters in the full spectrum of aerial warfare. One way to do that is through the recently unveiled F-15C 2040 concept, which specializes in air-to-air combat. The concept is an advanced upgrade of the F-15C, which the IAF already operates. In this way, older aircraft could simply be upgraded at low cost rather than buying new airframes.
Light attack aircraft – One of the major burdens to a small, yet qualitatively advanced militaries like the IDF is the cost of maintaining expensive equipment. This is particularly true of advanced fighters like the F-35 and the F-15. To ease this burden and address the unconventional threats Israel faces on its borders, the IAF should consider light attack aircraft such as the A-29 Super Tucano, AT-6C Texan II, and IOMAX Archangel. While these aircraft would be vulnerable against an advanced conventional foe, insurgent groups with minimum air defenses would struggle to combat even a low-tech aerial threat. These cheap, propeller-driven aircraft are similar to drones but are manned and carry more firepower. They are increasingly in demand by states in the region hoping to secure their borders from insurgent infiltration.
AGM-160 MALD – Decoy missiles that fool enemy air defenses have been used by the IAF since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Israel does have dedicated missiles and drones for this mission, such as the ATALD missile and Harop self-destructing drone. The Harop, however, is too short-ranged to be used against distant targets like Iran, while the ATALD is less advanced than other air-launched decoy missiles on the market. Israel should consider Raytheon’s AGM-160 MALD, which can be carried and launched in larger numbers by cargo aircraft, freeing strike aircraft to carry more weapons while also featuring an advanced variant that jams enemy radars.
AGM-88 HARM – The AGM-88 HARM is an air-launched supersonic anti-radiation missile – meaning its specialty is to home in on and destroy enemy radars. It would be particularly useful if Israel needed to suppress enemy air defenses in a pro-longed air campaign in Syria, Lebanon, or Iran. Currently, the IAF is believed to be equipped with a number of older anti-radiation missiles such as the AGM-78D Standard and the AGM-45A/B Shrike. But given the increasing sophistication of regional air defense systems, the HARM with its longer range and improved guidance system – working in tandem with MALD decoys – would be a significant upgrade. In 2013 the Obama administration reportedly offered the missiles to Israel, but so far it appears none was delivered.
Equipping the IDF with the right tools to meet current and future threats is challenging – especially given Israel’s limited manpower and budget. Those obstacles make it all the more important that Israeli and American leaders look past the latest trend in military hardware and choose items that deliver the greatest tangible return on investment.
Patrick Megahan is a research analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies focusing on military affairs. He manages the website MilitaryEdge.org.