During the course of United States Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s visit to Israel, we were informed about a number of gifts he brought with him in his baggage – (unnamed) anti-radiation missiles, radar equipment (about which details were not given either) – and KC-135 refueling planes and the V-22 Osprey, which takes off like a helicopter but flies like a plane.
A few words about the systems themselves: The KC-135 Stratotanker is quite a veteran workhorse. The U.S. Air Force now operates about 200 of them. It was developed alongside its civilian brother – the veteran Boeing 707 – in the 1950s and the newer ones were manufactured in 1965. Despite undergoing innumerable renovations and improvements, it remains an elderly plane. Since the aircraft is no longer being manufactured – a sale to Israel will be possible only from U.S. Air Force surplus.
For years now the Israel Air Force has been operating refueling planes based on the old Boeing 707, which were adapted here to refueling missions. These planes are having a hard time answering air force needs for long-range missions and they, too, are gradually approaching the end of their service lives.
The Osprey is a different story. The air force has been interested in this plane for several years and wants it to replace, or reinforce, the veteran Yasur (CH-53D) helicopters (which have marked 40 years of service). The Osprey project was very controversial in the United States, requiring 20 years of development and encountering many technical problems. Some 120 of them are in use, mainly in the Marine Corps.
Opponents of the Osprey noted mainly that the hybrid is neither as good as a helicopter nor as good as a cargo plane. Thus, the Osprey fits into a small niche: It will carry less cargo than the Yasur but for a longer range and at a greater speed – though for a far shorter range and at a far slower speed than a cargo plane of similar size. The U.S. Marine Corps, incidentally, did not take in the Osprey as a replacement for its veteran CH-53E helicopter, and they are waiting for the new model, the CH-53K, which is expected to enter service a few years for now.
During Hagel’s appointment hearings, he was accused of hostility toward Israel. His visit and his announcement of the arms sale are aimed at stressing that the United States continues to support Israel and its ability to attack specifically long-range targets, thereby delivering a separate message to Iran.
The U.S. timed the announcement of the sales to Israel with its arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which will get a further six F-16s on top of the 80 planes they received in recent years. The timing is an attempt to both reassure Israel, which in the not too distant past would have expressed protest at the sale of American weapons to Arab countries, and to send an additional message to Tehran about America’s determination to strengthen the Gulf states, which also feel threatened by Iran's military arming and nuclear ambitions.
The announcement doesn’t ensure that these planes will in fact be purchased. Nor is it a signed contract (and in any case the head of the army's planning directorate has already announced that the IDF lacks the budget to buy the Osprey). And there is still time to wonder if this purchase is the best one the IDF could make. Is it better to purchase the V-22 now, or to wait until the new helicopter comes into service, and are there better alternatives to a 50-year-old refueling plane, even if it has been renovated and improved?
Yiftah S. Shapir is head of the Middle East Military Balance project at the Institute for National Security Studies.
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