How a Bureaucratic Change Helped Save Israel

An obscure bureaucratic change enabled the extremely successful, coordinated defense of Israel against the recent Iranian attack. President Donald Trump’s January 2021 decision to transfer Israel to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) ensured the unprecedented Israeli-American-British-Arab collaboration that repelled 99 percent of Iran’s missiles and drones.

Prior to 2021, Israel was assigned to the U.S. European Command’s (EUCOM) area of responsibility. Based on geography and threats, Israel belonged to CENTCOM, the U.S. military’s Middle East command. Arab countries, however, did not want to be part of a forum with Israel, and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) leaders were satisfied and didn’t request a CENTCOM transfer. Until the last decade, the CENTCOM commander didn’t generally travel to Israel, his EUCOM counterpart’s turf, though the two American commanders began to meet periodically with the Israeli military chief.

As Israel’s relationships with Arab states began to warm quietly, a Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) 2018 report presciently argued that placing Israel within the U.S. combatant command responsible for the geographic region that Israel actually inhabits, the Middle East, would “enable improved strategic and operational coordination among the United States, Israel and our Arab partners throughout the region against Iran and other serious shared threats.” It repeated a similar argument in 2020.

In September 2020, the Abraham Accords proved that political, economic, and cultural cooperation between Israel and Arab states was not just possible but could flourish.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military, including CENTCOM commander General Frank McKenzie and EUCOM commander General Tod Wolters, began to realize the same and worked to make it happen. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley supported it, as did Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. Trump approved it in January 2021.

This seemingly minor bureaucratic change had a major effect, enabling daily close operational coordination with U.S. forces in the Middle East. IDF generals had their CENTCOM counterparts on speed dial.

Once in CENTCOM, Israeli and Arab militaries were able, depending on the country, to build or expand their professional military relationships. CENTCOM organized recurring meetings of regional military leaders to discuss shared threats and conducted frequent joint exercises. For example, McKenzie held two secret conferences with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi and all of the chiefs of defense from Arab nations about strengthening air defense cooperation.

When Iran launched 170 drones, 120 ballistic missiles, and thirty cruise missiles at Israel on April 13, this move to CENTCOM enabled crucial coordination with both the United States and Arab neighbors.

In the leadup to Iran’s attack, General Michael Kurilla traveled to Israel, sending a powerful signal of U.S. support for Israel, as well as facilitating close operational coordination.

When Iran attacked Israel, CENTCOM forces, supported by destroyers in the Mediterranean and Red Seas, shot down more than eighty one-way attack drones and at least six ballistic missiles that were headed toward Israel from Iran and Yemen. U.S. forces also struck a Houthi ballistic missile and seven drones in Yemen before they could launch.

The United States also served as the lynchpin between Israel and other partners. Jordan allowed Israel to use its airspace and shot down Iranian projectiles targeting Israel. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations reportedly fed Israel intelligence from their radars via CENTCOM’s Combined Air Operations Center.

This closely coordinated defense would have been far more difficult, if not impossible, without CENTCOM’s role as a regional integrator. Following this proof of concept, there is great potential and need for CENTCOM to expand regional defense cooperation.

With more Iranian attacks against Israel surely to come and Gulf Arab nations possessing less capable defenses than Israel, the United States should accelerate the creation of an integrated air and missile defense network. The next step in that process should be developing a common operating picture for the air domain. However, this will only be possible with diligent U.S. political and military leadership driving the process.

Additional preparations for further Iranian aggression should include expanding and regionalizing the U.S. stockpile of arms in Israel, called WRSA-I. Such a prepositioned U.S. arsenal—under U.S. control and for U.S. military needs but also available for Israeli use in emergencies—would bolster deterrence and prove critical in a potential conflict with Hezbollah or Iran, obviating the need for airlift resupply. A regionalized stockpile could also support Arab partners. However, WRSA-I has become depleted over the past fifteen years and is in urgent need of replenishment with modern, relevant weapons, such as precision-guided munitions (PGMs).

Moving Israel to CENTCOM has already paid huge dividends, both helping defend Israel against a potentially destructive attack and demonstrating regional solidarity against the shared threat of Iran. The United States should continue to invest in expanding these regional partnerships so that no U.S. partner in the Middle East has to defend itself by itself.

Michael Makovsky, a former Pentagon official, is president and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA). General Chuck Wald (USAF, ret.), a former deputy commander of the U.S. European Command and commander of U.S. Central Command Air Forces, is a distinguished fellow at JINSA.

Originally published in the The National Interest.