Analysis |

Israel Air Force Will Get Its New Weapons. But an Entire Year Was Squandered

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, right, at a meeting at Northern Command last year.
IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, right, at a meeting at Northern Command last year.Credit: IDF
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The security cabinet this week approved the Israel Defense Forces’ procurement plan, in dollars, for the coming years. The decision followed a sharp exchange between the finance and defense ministries; the latter sought to refinance a loan to make it possible to sign new acquisition deals.

The winner was the Defense Ministry; the financial consequence is additional interest worth 800 million shekels ($245 million), which the ministry agreed will come from its budget. The authorization will shortly unfreeze $9.4 billion for the IDF, most to be allotted to the air force until 2028, and all of it from U.S. military aid.

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The first priority is to acquire refueling aircraft (Boeing’s KC-46,) which will arrive in Israel in about two years. Next in line are CH-53 Yasur helicopters (the new K model manufactured by Lockheed Martin or Boeing’s upgraded Chinook), fighter jets (probably a mix of F-35s and upgraded F-15s), munitions for the air force and intercept missiles for the various anti-rocket systems.

A possibility that hasn’t been completely ruled out is the purchase of the V-22, a combined plane-helicopter, also made by Boeing. Lower priorities are the traditionally less-favored recipients of IDF procurement: the intelligence and teleprocessing units and the ground forces.

The actual acquisition is contingent on authorization from the ministerial committee that oversees IDF procurement for every deal over 500 million shekels. Deliberations are set to begin in a week, with the IDF still waiting for Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s final decision on the Yasur.

All this is happening, as I’ve written before, very late. Nearly a year was wasted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence on more choices and his decision not to approve a state budget. But additional delays were caused by the IDF itself, which took its time deciding on its priorities and tried to get the politicians to authorize all the projects at once.

Approval of the dollar-based procurement provided a rare dose of good news for the IDF chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi, whose multiyear plan has fallen victim to the political crisis and the destabilizing pandemic. It will be harder for Kochavi to battle for the shekel-based component of the defense budget, which will have to compete with the economy’s urgent needs.

And he’s still waging a rearguard action to block additional moves  planned by the Finance Ministry such as canceling the controversial pension increment that the chief of staff grants to career army retirees.

Stealth fighters undergoing aerial refueling above a pilots' graduation course last year.Credit: Chaim Hornstein

Three main areas are Lebanon, the Palestinian front and military-and-justice issues.

Lebanon: There’s been something of a turnaround in the IDF’s intelligence branch for 2021: The northern arena is not only considered the most dangerous, it’s considered more prone to volatility. In the background, unsettled accounts with Iran and Hezbollah are mentioned in the wake of military operations attributed to Israel.

But that’s not the only consideration. Iran is trying to deploy air defense systems in the countries under its sway such as Syria and Iraq. In Lebanon, Hezbollah wants to foil Israeli drones; Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah promised to do so after a drone attack, attributed to Israel, in south Beirut’s Dahiyeh neighborhood in August 2019.

So Israel has deployed more Iron Dome missile-intercept batteries in the north, for the long term. Still, some members of the General Staff are wondering whether Military Intelligence isn’t exaggerating the  Hezbollah threat given Lebanon’s deep political and economic crisis. These officers believe that Nasrallah can’t allow himself a brief round of fighting with the IDF with his domestic arena seething and the country on the verge of insolvency.

The Palestinians: According to the IDF, two developments diminish the danger of a flare-up in the Palestinian arena. The $360 million that Qatar has promised to transfer to the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip this year will ensure economic stability, albeit at a minimal level. And the agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas on holding an election this year focuses minds on politics.

Also, the stabbing and shooting attacks recently in the West Bank didn’t unsettle things largely because the soldiers on the ground responded well. There’s a consensus in the General Staff that Hamas has made a strategic choice in favor of an arrangement with Israel and isn’t keen on a military confrontation in the near future.

As usual, there are still factors that could lead to an escalation: a break in Israel’s easing of restrictions because of the stalled negotiations over soldiers’ bodies and civilians being held in Gaza, Iranian attempts to stir things up via Islamic Jihad, and above all, Gaza’s woeful physical condition.

A poster of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah along an empty road during a coronavirus lockdown, Bint Jbeil, Lebanon, last month.Credit: Aziz Taher / Reuters

Military and justice: Of course, at the Institute for National Security Studies at the end of January, Kochavi stirred a furor with his hard-line remarks on Iran’s nuclear project.

What wasn’t noticed was Kochavi’s call to revisit the international rules of warfare on facing terrorist and guerrilla organizations that operate from civilian areas. The chief of staff wants to give armies a larger area of legitimization for action, even at the price of greater damage to civilian areas.

But Kochavi spoke shortly after the changeover in the United States, with the new administration actually presenting a tougher stance on this issue. Joe Biden has been quick to revise U.S. policy on Yemen, demonstratively objecting to the Saudis’ aggressive war with its high civilian casualties.

A few days after Kochavi’s speech, the International Criminal Court in The Hague decided that its jurisdiction lets it address Israel’s measures in the territories (in Palestine, in the court’s term). The new approach Kochavi is calling for could clash with the changed views in the international arena.

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