WASHINGTON - Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling commands the United States' ground forces in Europe. During the Cold War this was a desirable post for a career officer: It involved preparing the corps for a potential clash with the Warsaw Pact armies on German soil. In recent years the job became less glamorous, however, and the rank of the person holding it was downgraded to three stars, because the United States no longer needed to maintain huge divisions in Europe. From the more than 200,000 troops in the past - not counting air, sea, marines and special forces - now only 40,000 remain in three brigades, and one is going home soon.
A month ago Hertling convened military correspondents in Washington and reviewed his missions. Without being asked, he showered praise on the Israel Defense Forces, particularly on ground forces commander Maj. Gen. Shlomo (Sami ) Turgeman, whom he met during a visit to Israel this summer. Hertling said he and Turgeman kicked out the other officers so as to discuss privately the lessons from fighting Hezbollah in the Second Lebanon War, and Hamas in Operation Cast Lead - particularly, how to fight semi-regular armies and how to train to make sure the forces are well prepared.
The Kirya (defense headquarters in Tel Aviv ) and the Pentagon maintain close, open ties. But anyone who rushes to conclude that an Israeli operation against Iran, should one occur, would be embraced by Washington or the European Command headquarters in Stuttgart, would be misreading the Americans. The IDF is bound to the American defense establishment, and there is no sign that the Obama administration is preparing to loosen the leash. All evidence indicates that Uncle Sam has his Israeli nephew in such a tight embrace that the IDF would have difficulty breaking free, should it even want to.
The United States European Command (EUCOM ) announced around the time of Hertling's recent visit to Israel that a joint exercise, Austere Challenge, would be held in April 2012. This exercise would be different and larger than past exercises. EUCOM would set up a forward command post in Israel, while the IDF's parallel command post would operate from a base in Germany. The American officers would simulate a real emergency, taking position deep underground. The exercise would be preceded by many meetings.
The exact exercise scenario has not been made public yet, but it is likely to involve a regional conflagration, including Iranian missile fire on Israel. In response, American systems - in the air and in space, at sea and on land - will back the IDF's defense.
Of special importance in an emergency is the sophisticated radar deployed in the Negev. It faces eastward, and is under full American control. Israel does not directly receive the radar's data on missiles' launches and their routes. Instead, the information is entered directly into the Americans' situation report, and only afterward disseminated to countries that may be harmed. Israel is thus essentially forfeiting some sovereignty in return for some precious minutes - 8 to 10 - of advance warning. This means Israelis won't have to run to get to bomb shelters, and Arrow anti-ballistic missiles will be launched only against missiles that appear to be heading toward populated areas.
In addition to the land radar are two Aegis anti-missile boats, which will be deployed north of and across from Israel in case of an emergency, thereby creating a radar triangle that can pinpoint Iranian missiles in flight so they can be intercepted.
The Sixth Fleet's ships emit such strong electronic signals that during one exercise, Israel Railways barriers were raised and lowered. Coordinating frequencies is vital to both sides; this is just one aspect of the complicated planning, which takes time.
By the time the drill takes place in April, Obama and Congress will already be deep into election campaigning, and there is no worse time to go on the warpath. Obama may be eager to settle accounts with the Iranians, soothe Saudi fears (that is why CIA director David Petraeus and his "heir," Central Command head James Mattis, were sent to the funeral of Prince Sultan ), and prove that the Iraq withdrawal does not spell the end of the U.S. military presence in the region. Plus, Iranian participation in killing Americans in the Middle East may yet lead both sides to a violent conflict, with or without Israel. But as far as Obama is concerned, it won't be happening next year. The president's political standing is too shaky to suddenly risk a new war while he's wrapping one up in Iraq, and planning to end a second one in Afghanistan.
And it is not only politicians, with all of their pledges regarding Israel's security (not including the West Bank and the settlements ), who want to avoid a war with Iran right now: The same goes for the military brass, whose support is crucial in Congressional hearings and in public statements - despite the military's unquestioned subordination to the political leadership.
The American military is tired and scarred from a decade of fighting. Some soldiers were stationed five or six times in battle zones, far from home. The suicide rate is on the rise, and the number of people suffering post-traumatic stress from combat is higher than ever. The top brass has declared its duty to rehabilitate soldiers and help them rebuild their families. Now is not the time to bring them to despair with another operation.
The era of generous budgets is also over. The Pentagon must find places to cut billions of dollars over the next decade. It is not keen to give up weapons systems, and its outlays on personnel are rising uncontrollably; over the past 10 years the order of battle grew merely 4 percent, but military personnel costs increased 80 percent. Medical care for soldiers and their families costs the Pentagon some $50 billion a year, more than three times Israel's entire defense budget. Where can cuts be made? In operations.
Hertling and his colleagues' sympathy and esteem for Maj. Gen. Turgeman and the General Staff are genuine. The smaller EUCOM becomes, and the more it builds military alliances with non-NATO countries, the more it is interested in planning with the IDF. To plan and prepare for operations, as opposed to gleefully charge at an undefined target. The armies' ties are the groundwork for crunch time, but they are intended to restrain, not to incite.
Last month the Pentagon published classified documents from 2003, written following the fall of Baghdad and the anticipated capture of Saddam Hussein. The documents exude a powerful whiff of fear that Saddam held weapons of mass destruction - weapons that would be used against a conquering army if the Iraqi commanders found out that Saddam had been captured or killed. In that case, the Americans got it wrong. Before giving Israel permission to attack a pre-nuclear Iran - if they ever even do so - they're likely to demand more solid evidence this time around. CIA director Petraeus would not tarnish his prestige with an incorrect intelligence assessment.
Israel and the IDF are important to the American system, so it makes sure to provide for them. But ultimately, they are like the wheels of an aircraft: necessary on the ground but folded up after takeoff. To hear the declarations by senior Israeli government members, it seems they sometimes forget who is the plane and who is the wheel. The White House and the Pentagon remember.
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