QME, Part II: U.S. Arms Sales to the Arabs, and Help (?) for Israel

[Correction to JINSA Report #956: The 1981 U.S. sale to Saudi Arabia was for E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) airplanes, not fighter jets.]

[Correction to JINSA Report #956: The 1981 U.S. sale to Saudi Arabia was for E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) airplanes, not fighter jets.]

The concept of the Qualitative Military Edge (QME) failed to keep up with the changes in U.S. arms sales and training policy over the decades. It also failed to keep up with the changes in the regional picture of Israel and its adversaries-and the problems the adversaries themselves face. And finally, the Obama Administration posture toward Iran-including diplomatic overtures to the government and failure to obtain allied agreement on meaningful sanctions or other action-appears to have shifted from preventing Iranian acquisition of nuclear capabilities to deciding how to deal with a nuclear Iran. The implications for the security “edge” Israel requires in the face of continued Arab and Iranian rejection are huge.

During the “decade of the oughts” (as it appears to have been retroactively dubbed), the strategic alignment in the region changed from “everybody against Israel” to a “pro-Iran vs. anti-Iran” axis. Israel found itself on the same side of the strategic divide as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Bahrain and Lebanese democrats. On the other side are Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, Iran and, increasingly, Turkey. Iraq appears out of the picture, which is a very big change in historical terms. That doesn’t mean Saudi Arabia likes Israel any better, but there is a clearer meeting of the minds on what threatens who and how. Saudi condemnation of Hezbollah during the 2006 Lebanon war and decision not to give even rhetorical support to Hamas during the Gaza war were demonstrations of the shift; as was passage of an Israeli warship through the Suez Canal during the summer.

Early in the decade, the Bush Administration needed Gulf Arab help for the war in Iraq-particularly after Turkey denied the United States entrance into Iraq from the north-and wanted to bolster their ability to deal with problems as they saw them. There was little objection from Israel, which despite being pleased that Iraq was no longer in the circle of enemies, had always insisted that Iran was the real threat and increasingly saw the increased, if unspoken, relationship with Egypt and Saudi Arabia as positive. Arms sales to the Gulf ensued-but nothing much to Egypt, in American protest of Egyptian human rights violations.

The Obama Administration, however, has announced major new sales to the Arab states, including Egypt. Egypt will receive four batteries (20 missiles) of advanced Harpoon Block II anti-ship cruise missiles-capable of overcoming the countermeasures and electronic warfare suites generally available for defense-along with four fast missile boats, 450 Hellfire antitank missiles usually launched from Apache attack helicopters-12 of which the Obama Administration sold to Egypt during the summer (see below), 156 jet engines for F-16 jets to follow the October sale of 24 F-16 C/D fighter aircraft equipped with advanced electronic warfare suites.

Saudi Arabia will get 2,742 TOW-2 antitank missiles. Ha’aretz reports that Jordan will receive 1,808 night vision-equipped Javelin antitank missiles with 162 launchers capable of penetrating the most modern tanks. These are in addition to the September deal for more than 80 advanced rocket launchers of types that have been sold to Israel in the past. The UAE will get 1,600 laser-guided “smart” bombs, 800 one-ton bombs, and 400 bunker buster bombs. Morocco has contracted for 24 F-16s.

So, what’s the problem if Israel doesn’t consider those countries to be immediate threats? The problem is that the increased sales come at the same time U.S. policy has shifted from support for Israel’s right of self-defense to support for a new “peace process” aimed at settling borders to provide for a Palestinian state Secretary of State Clinton told the Qatari Prime Minister the Palestinians “deserve.” Changing Israel’s local security paradigm at the same time as increased sales to the neighbors-and no new sales to Israel-means the balance is pushed further out-of-whack.

Indeed, Israel’s request for six AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopters was blocked by the Obama Administration in June-the same time the Egyptian sale was approved. U.S. sources reported that the request was undergoing an “interagency review to determine whether additional Longbow helicopters would threaten Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip.” “During the recent war, Israel made considerable use of the Longbow, and there were high civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip,” a source close to the administration was reported to have said.

So Hamas paid no American price for its assault on the people of Israel, but Israel’s defense was subject to U.S. “review.”

Problems with Israel’s bid for the next-generation F-35 fighter have yet to be resolved. Israel wants permission to put its own avionics in the plane-a “tweak” that would give Israel its edge-and wants to be able to service the plane in Israel, thinking that sending it abroad for repairs during wartime might be a tad inconvenient. The Pentagon said “no” to both. To be fair, Britain was also denied access to the central computer codes as well, but that doesn’t help Israel.

The Obama Administration made much of the installation of the U.S. X-Band Radar in Israel and the November Juniper Cobra joint exercises as proof of its support for Israel. Both are useful and important, although the Bush Administration approved the X-Band Radar and the Juniper Cobra exercise was one in a long series of annual joint exercises. More important, both could be seen as ways to prevent Israeli action against Iran should Israel think that action necessary.

Radar serves to detect an attack and the X-Band will help Israel see an Iranian attack much earlier than its indigenously-developed Green Pine radar, but preparing to receive an Iranian attack means that efforts to prevent Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons will have failed. Likewise, the Juniper Cobra exercises are about defending Israel from attack, not preventing the attack in the first place.

The American commitment to Israel cannot only be to Israel’s defense should someone (Iran or any combination of Arab states) attack it; the commitment has to be to the security of Israel-including measures Israel deems necessary to protect its citizens before an attack, and deciding not to provide the means of attack to Israel’s enemies.

Including the Palestinians.