Israel Gets a Government, and the Air Force Is Going Shopping

The multi-annual plan for Israel’s armed forces bogged down in the political turmoil and then the coronavirus arrived. The order of the day is new priorities, but the ground forces could be left behind, exactly as usual

Yossi Melman
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Boeing CH-47 Chinook takes off during an exercise at an Emirati military base home to a Military Operations in Urban Terrain facility in al-Hamra, UAE, March 23, 2020.
Boeing CH-47 Chinook takes off in al-Hamra, UAE, March 23, 2020.Credit: Jon Gambrell/AP
Yossi Melman

Ordinarily, this article would have to begin with something like this: “According to foreign reports, the Israel Air Force has stepped up its alleged attacks against Iranian targets, Shi’ite militias and Hezbollah forces in Syria.” But on Sunday evening Channel 12 News reported on a discussion IAF Commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin conducted over Zoom with representatives of the Israeli Air Line Pilots Association, in which he publicly took pride in the escalation in attacks during the months of the coronavirus crisis.

The fact that Norkin’s chat with the pilots ended up on the most widely viewed news broadcast in Israel and became an item, further reveals the degree to which the defense establishment and the military censor use ostensibly clandestine information to serve their own interests. If the IAF commander or the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff had not wanted the information to become public, it wouldn’t have. Unfortunately, the only people who are censored in Israel are the journalists. Ministers, government officials, and IDF officers can blab, when it serves their purposes, and without oversight.

Norkin’s revelations mean to serve the purposes of the air force, the IDF in general and Defense Minister Benny Gantz. Their objective is to goad the government into reaching a decision on the defense budget, from which the multi-annual plan “Tnufa” (Momentum) for 2021-2026 will be derived.

Tnufa is the sequel to “Gideon,” which was drawn up under the previous Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. Work on Tnufa bogged down because of the political crisis; now following the coronavirus crisis, new priorities are in order: health care, education, social welfare, dealing with sharply higher unemployment, and handling a deficit that ballooned to about 50 billion shekels ($14.5 billion). By the nature of things, the army has less room to maneuver to get what it wants compared to the past.

Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi wants a more “lethal” army with better terrestrial maneuverability and greater firepower; an army that can connect the dots of information and intelligence transmitted at lightning speed over networks, ending in powerful precision attacks on the targets. These are worthy demands, but absent sufficient means, they can’t all be met.

The biggest demand, requiring the most cash, comes as usual from the air force. Norkin would like to speedily replace the outdated fleet of Lockheed-Martin Sikorsky (Yasur) transport helicopters. They had been purchased in the 1960s and 1970s and have had their shelf lives repeatedly prolonged. But a report from the watchdog State Comptroller determined that using them beyond 2025 could cost lives. Years ago the IAF had two squadrons of about 40 Yasurs, since which time some have crashed, some have been damaged and some have gone out of service. There are much fewer now and their operational fitness causes problems on a daily basis.

Coronavirus patient being evacuated in a Chinook CH-47
Coronavirus patient being evacuated in an Indian Air Force Chinook CH-47.Credit: AFP

The air force plans to purchase 18-20 transport helicopters at a cost between $1 billion and $1.5 billion, and is trying to decide between two models. One is the Sikorsky CH-53K, and its great advantages lie in the fact that it is familiar to the pilots and its carrying capacity is two and a half times that of the old model. Its disadvantages include that it has yet to go into service in the U.S. Marine Corps – to date only Germany and Japan have expressed an interest in it; and mainly, it’s very expensive. A single helicopter costs about $87 million. The second option is the Boeing Chinook (CH-47). Its disadvantage is its relatively small carrying capacity, but it has two main advantages: an attractive price of about $50-$60 million per helicopter, and the fact that it is used by many air forces worldwide.

Lobbyists, vested interests and people with ties to Boeing and Lockheed-Martin (most of them former IAF people, of course), have been working for some time on winning the precious contract, which will be decided by tender. A decision is expected by year-end: it seems the Chinook is leading.

In addition, the IAF, Military Intelligence and the special forces also want to purchase six Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey aircraft. This is a helicopter-plane that can take off and land vertically and can be very helpful in special operations, in transporting forces to distant locations such as the southern Red Sea, Iraq and Iran. Each Osprey costs about $50-60 million, so in light of the expected budget cuts, their purchase is unlikely to happen.

The air force is also demanding money to buy Boeing KC-46 mid-air refueling planes, despite the technical problems and delays they face. They will replace seven antiquated existing planes. Aerial refueling enables fighter jets to embark on long-range missions, such as attacking Iran, if necessary. Each new refueling plane costs about $300 million. The United States has already approved Israel’s purchase of eight such aircraft, but the IAF understands that due to budget constraints it will apparently have to make do with four.

Also on the agenda is the IAF’s desire to acquire additional fighter jets: Norkin would like another sqadron of F-35 Stealth (Adir) bombers and another squadron of F-15s, which is the primary and most important warplane at present. In recent years the IAF has purchased 20 Adir planes and by year-end is due to get 13 more. The fleet of Adirs is expected to grow to 50 planes in years to come, subject to the government’s decision.

“Both are important. The F-15 is a work horse that has proven itself,” a former senior IAF officer told me, and projected that a “mix can be achieved that will make it possible to acquire both of them.”

A Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey aircraft is seen during a military drill amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at Yokota U.S. Air Force Base in Fussa, on the outskirts of Tokyo, Japan May 21, 2020.
A Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey at Yokota U.S. Air Force Base in Fussa, Japan, May 21, 2020.Credit: ISSEI KATO/REUTERS

When the enemy refuses to die

Two of the rules of thumb when buying jet fighters are: What is the present inventor; and how long the planes can remain on active service. These days the IAF has about a 30-year lifespan in mind, which is why it was recently decided to put the F-16 squadron on the Ramat David base, in northern Israel, out to pasture. The IDF thought to sell them but that needs American approval and Washington is not happy about it. The United States itself wants to find buyers for its obsolete aircraft, which is why it recently blocked a deal between Israel and Croatia.

If the chief of staff and the government approve the entire IAF “shopping list,” it would total about $6 billion, spread over some years. Fortunately for Israel, these are dollars that arrive as U.S. aid, which was increased to about $3.8 billion annually (yes, yes, thanks to President Barack Obama). Israel has to spend that money in the U.S. and can’t convert it into shekels for the local market. Due to the Israeli election campaigns and the delays in acquisition decisions, Israel has used only a small percentage of the aid money for 2020.

However, some people think the discourse about how much to spend and on what, should be broader: “The discussion should also be on the issue of how we can win wars,” says MK Yair Golan (Meretz) who served as deputy chief of staff and retired from the army in 2017. “Unfortunately, Israel has adopted a school of thought that originated in the U.S. during the Cold War, to the effect that firepower wins wars. This school is based on an assessment that a combination of precise intelligence and precision weapons will cause the enemy to die. That’s an approach which is the refuge of strong countries that can wage prolonged wars of attrition, and have the means for massive bombing. It also generated the illusion that this school of thought will reduce casualties. But what’s missing in this equation is the enemy and unfortunately it is stubborn and refuses to die,” Golan says. “Since the first Lebanon War [in 1982], Israel has waged wars of attrition in Lebanon, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. I argue for a concept change, designed to lead to resolution. Firepower and precise intelligence and network connectivity on the battlefield are important but they aren’t sufficient conditions for victory. You have to outmaneuver the enemy, and to do so you have to define the goals of the war in advance. If we aspire to win, we have to build a strategy of resolution for that purpose. That requires ground forces and that requires considerable investment.”

Boeing KC-46 refueling jet
Boeing KC-46 refueling jet.Credit: Boeing / Paul Weatherman

In what, for example? “We need more ‘Namer’ armored personnel carriers (based on the Merkava tank and bought with American aid). Intelligence networking multiplies our strengths. Precise SIGINT (signal intelligence) field intelligence and precise fire at the tactical level, even at the level of the single soldier – are essential. We can’t think exclusively in strategic terms of air force firepower,” Golan says.

“There’s no question that Israel needs ground forces that are capable of defeating any enemy force, in other words, bringing the enemy’s military force to the point of surrender or ceasefire. The competence of a ground strike force is composed of a large number of elements, but the paramount one is a high level of training," he adds. "Because there is always a shortfall in training exercises for ground forces, as opposed to air and sea training exercises, the upshot is that the IDF invests too much in system weapons, system firepower and system intelligence, and too little in the tactical competence of the corps and the fighters. Even the ancient Romans knew that overall strategy is based on a combination of capabilities at the level of weapons, and tactical, operative, strategic and political capabilities. The IDF is strong in weaponry and the training of its command centers is reasonable, but the tactical, strategic and diplomatic levels are perennially neglected.”

'Namer' armored vehicle
'Namer' armored vehicle.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

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