Is this a sign of "groupthink," or the presence of a guild? All the former air force chiefs are lining up behind the current Israel Air Force commander, Maj. Gen. Ido Nechushtan, and unequivocally supporting the decision to acquire F-35 Stealth fighters. Not a single one of them has questioned the wisdom of the decision, made jointly by the Israel Defense Forces and the Defense Ministry, even though it will cost around $2.5 billion, or NIS 10 billion.
The price tag for each plane, according to the ministry, is around $100 million. But there are experts, including Yiftah Shapir of Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies, who expect the cost to soar to around $150 million per plane, bringing the total cost of the 22 planes the IAF is seeking to obtain to over $3 billion.
Eitan Ben Eliyahu, who commanded the IAF in the 1990s, told Channel 10 television this week that the acquisition - which still requires cabinet approval, but will almost certainly get it - is vital, as it will ensure Israel's "military, security and force superiority, and also its deterrent capability." It is hard to find opponents of the deal, and especially those willing to express their views publicly.
Shapir told the Chinese news agency Xinhua that it is not entirely clear whether the Stealth is more maneuverable than the F-16. A retired major general who has voiced original opinions in the past - but would only speak on this issue on condition that he not be named - said the decision reminds him of a syndrome common to the IDF and many other armies: They prepare to fight the next war using the tools and thought patterns of the last one.
"By the time the planes arrive, in another five years, the next-generation plane will already be unmanned," he said.
Another problem is that the planes, which are meant to improve the IDF's strategic assault capabilities, will be operational only in 2017. By then, Iran will already have nuclear weapons, and it is highly doubtful that Israel would dare to attack a country with nuclear bombs. On the other hand, if Iran does not have nuclear weapons by then, it probably never will have them - and if so, why are the planes needed?
There are also people who say it would be better to spend this astronomical sum, which will be allocated from the American aid budget, on other IDF needs - a point raised in this column about a year ago already.
But Lt. Gen. (res. ) Dan Halutz, who commanded the air force until about six years ago and then became IDF chief of staff, rebuts these criticisms with convincing arguments. First, he said in an interview with Haaretz, this clearly was not a case of "groupthink" or a mobilization of the air force lobby.
"If I as chief of staff had decided to go ahead with this purchase, people would have said 'the blues' prevailed," he explained, referring to the air force's blue uniforms, in contrast to the army's green. "But the fact is that the General Staff, including the 'green' chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, decided there is a need for this plane. I have no doubt that they took all the various considerations into account and weighed the pros and cons.
"The decision to equip ourselves with the Stealth is not dependent on any given future war, perish the thought," he added. "Planes age, and the air force has to refresh its fleet of planes every 35 to 40 years, regardless of any strategic judgment or war plans to be made in the future. And in any case, 2015 will arrive more dramatically than we think, and Israel and the air force must be at the technological forefront.
"It's the easiest thing in the world to say we are wasting tens of billions of shekels, but of course that isn't true," he continued, noting that the entire purchase will be funded by American aid and be spread out over several years. If, as some expect, the period is 10 years, that would lead to spending of $200-300 million annually.
Halutz realizes that it will not stop at 22 planes: Once the first batch arrives, the IAF will again seek to enlarge its forces by acquiring additional planes.
Nevertheless, he stressed, "the most important question is the alternative. Let's say we drop the purchase of the Stealth planes. Advanced F-15 jets also cost close to $100 million per plane. And let's say we drop the purchase of the Stealth planes and leave the money where it is. Can this money be used for anything else? These funds can't be used to purchase submarines, because the United States stopped building diesel-powered submarines, and therefore Israel has built and is building its submarines in Germany, using German aid funds and its own budget."
Nor does Halutz think the needs of other IDF units - tanks, artillery, intelligence and others - will be affected by the decision: It is reasonable to assume, he said, that the General Staff and the chief of staff considered their interests and equipment needs as well.
"It's hard to give tactical answers to strategic questions, and certainly not in yes-or-no terms," he concluded. "Therefore, it's not possible to make an unequivocal determination about the Stealth. But to me, at any rate, it's clear that the acquisition entails great advantages, and the plane is essential for Israel."
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