Over time, mainly since the early 1980s, Israel has gone from being considered a net security consumer to a net security producer. This means that by its presence Israel makes the region more secure and the United States does not expend resources to defend it.
There have been issues. There was serious American upset about Israel’s defense relationship with China in 2005. It was managed between allies. The 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran caused tension over the possible military implications of Iranian cheating. Today, there is increasing American concern about Chinese aggression. Israel has responded by creating governmental offices to better vet potential high-tech projects with China.
But since the first cooperation agreement was signed in 1981, the relationship between the Israeli and the American military establishments has grown in compatibility, interoperability, and significance. The relationship has two centers, one governmental/financial, the other military/operational. Today, there is good news and bad news on both fronts.
Good News First
Cooperation still has a bi-partisan basis. Senators Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) have introduced a bill to create the United States-Israel Operations-Technology Working Group that will:
Provide a standing forum for the United States and Israel to identify and share intelligence-informed military capability requirements.
Assist defense suppliers in both countries to gain government approval for conducting joint science, technology, research, development, test, evaluation, and production efforts.
Develop combined U.S.-Israel plans to research, develop, procure, and field weapons systems and military capabilities to meet common capability requirements.
According to the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Defense Exports and Cooperation, “Once the two countries identify future military capabilities, they both will need, the OTWG could facilitate development of combined U.S.-Israel plans to research, develop, procure, and field systems as quickly and affordably as possible.”
For those who believe money Israel receives is money unavailable for American defense, Bradley Bowman of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) notes, “Israel uses billions in annual U.S. military aid to purchase American weapons – strengthening America’s defense innovation base, creating U.S. jobs, and building vital U.S.-Israel military interoperability. U.S. and Israeli service members train together, conduct combined exercises, and share best practices.”
Tunnel detection, countering unmanned aerial systems, armored vehicle and tank protection are high-priority areas of cooperation. Perhaps most important is ballistic missile defense research, in which Israel’s government and industries partner with Ballistic Missile Defense Agency (BMDA)
and American industry.
Now, The Bad News
The financial consensus is eroding and the operational one faces challenges.
Long before the September 2021 kerfuffle in the U.S. House over President Joe Biden’s promise of emergency money for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, “progressive” political candidates and anti-Israel speakers at the 2019 J Street Conference had questioned the utility of American aid to Israel except, perhaps, as “leverage” to force Israel to meet their hostile, leftist demands. Even some mainstream candidates were willing to “explore” the issue. There is now regular opposition in the House to security support for Israel – not couched in polite terms, but in vile language which includes comments that can only be called antisemitic.
Some of the opposition is simply anti-Israel. Some is intended to support Biden’s apparent belief that diplomacy with the Islamic Republic of Iran requires “paying” Iran in the currency of stifling Israeli defense measures, as Israel is the only country in the region able to threaten Iran militarily. And some is old fashioned anti-American, anti-military opposition. Some of the “no” votes on Iron Dome were in the stated belief that defenses are, in fact, aggressive. Knowing that Israel’s population is protected could make the Israeli military more inclined to engage in heavier bombing of Palestinians, they say. The same anti-defense logic was common in the U.S. during the Reagan administration.
Don’t expect the opposition to disappear. On the contrary.
Two Military Mandates
Has the American military establishment followed the leftward tilt away from Israel? No. But other, domestically-driven stresses are making themselves felt.
Every national military operates with a mandate from its government. Israel’s mandate is the defense of the borders of the homeland using a conscripted force. With the rise of the threat from Iran and Iranian proxies on Israel’s borders, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has broadened its reach but its mandate to protect the people of Israel remains the same. The United States has a much, much broader mandate. Worldwide freedom of navigation, enforcement of international blockades, protection of friends and allies both bilaterally and through a system of formal alliances, and world-wide counterterrorism operations are included. With a volunteer military.
Not that American military wants the draft back – it really doesn’t – but the leadership has always been just a little bit jealous of what it sees as Israel’s clear and narrow mission, the unity of the civilian population, and the willingness of civilians to serve, including years of reserve duty.
The mandate of the civilian and military leadership in the U.S. has been expanded to domestic issues including Critical Race Theory, “climate literacy,” gender and racial “equity” replacing “equality,” and for the first time, the upper echelon of the Pentagon has taken on the task of rooting out what it calls “far-right extremists” in the armed forces. The horribly mismanaged and deadly dash from Afghanistan came on top of all of that, leaving many soldiers unclear whether their leadership has their backs.
There is History Here
The last time the American military had a serious crisis of identity and policy was at the end of the American part of the Vietnam War. The troops had fought the good fight – as had the South Vietnamese military – and the American military departure was done without incident. But the politicians had no follow-on strategy and no plan that couldn’t be undermined by a combination of North Vietnamese/Chinese lies and congressional Democrats. The South fell to communist forces in 1975.
On the other hand, the U.S. had already ended the draft and was well into the creation of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF).
The AVF has been an enormous success at many levels and helped overcome the hangover of Vietnam. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the freeing of the “Captive Nations” were, in part, tributes to the steadfastness of NATO led by American soldiers and money. The 1990 Gulf War restored the independence of Kuwait with few coalition casualties. After 9/11/2001, the American military response in Afghanistan was extraordinary. (And who could forget the photos of American Special Ops forces on horseback with helicopters flying above them?) The invasion of Iraq was a military success. The American people appreciate their AVF force in a way the Vietnam-era military was never appreciated.
Israel as a Rising Partner
In November 1983, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and President Ronald Reagan signed an agreement to expand “cooperation in areas where our interests coincide, particularly in the political and military area.” Early in 1984, I convened a group of American military professionals to add muscle to the agreement – they were fully on board with Israel as a friend but were distinctly of the opinion that a small country facing enormous, existential threats could not add much to American capabilities. After two days, however, the group created a grid of American needs and Israeli capabilities that could mesh. Their memo became part of the U.S. delegation’s background material in the first formal strategic cooperation talks.
After 9/11, Israel shared its counterterrorism, police, and urban counterterror capabilities with the U.S. “Opening the closet,” they called it. American Marines were thrilled by the Israeli bomb-sniffing dogs, but it takes years to train them. “Take ours,” the Israelis said. It took less time to teach the Marines Hebrew commands than to retrain the dogs.
Israel has been moved formally from a partner in the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) to the Central Command (CENTCOM). It retains its working relations with NATO that commenced in 2005. Joint exercises, technology and intelligence sharing, and a similar, democratic outlook on governance have made military-to-military relations a benefit to both. European governments criticize Israel politically, but they are aligned on regional security concerns.
In CENTCOM, the IDF is better able to work with the U.S. and the Gulf partners of the Abraham Accords – and, perhaps, achieve better intelligence and security cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have not joined the Abraham Accords, but years of quiet sharing with Israel can now be enhanced. Israel is only beginning to explore the possibility of diplomatic relations with the world of CENTCOM in which Israel is the only democracy.
The Blue Flag exercise in October 2021, was a melding of the two. UAE Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Nasser Mohammed al-Alawi was there. France, Germany, Greece, India, Italy, the UK, and the United States all sent fighter aircraft and personnel to Israel. It had the first French Rafale fighter squadron and the first Indian Mirage fighter squadron to fly in Israel, and the first British fighter squadron in Israel since 1948. There was a rumor about Jordanian military observers that proved to be false – it was a Jordanian pilot flying.
In February 2022, a massive Red Sea naval drill led by the U.S. Fifth Fleet included Israel for the first time. Countries of the Abraham Accords were there – UAE, Morocco, and Bahrain. But so were Bangladesh, Comoros, Djibouti, Oman, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, with which Israel has no formal relations. There will be a huge learning/sharing curve, but it clearly discomfits Iran, which is important.
In 2022, it appears the substructure of U.S.-Israel security cooperation is sound, but the U.S. military finds itself with problems – foreign and, increasingly, domestic. Having been focused for 20 years on the Middle East and South Asia, the military is not well prepared for an aggressive and high-tech China. The Navy is too small; the Marines have been deprived of their traditional mission; no service is up to date on Artificial Intelligence (AI); China is stealing American technology and creating monopolies in strategic minerals; and more. At the same time, soldiers are grappling with a “woke” mandate for personal behavior. The pursuit of non-compliant soldiers has been exacerbated by COVID-19 vaccine mandates that even many vaccinated soldiers detest.
That is a recipe for a force lacking a measure of self-confidence, and one in which our allies will have less confidence.
But the rise of the force after the setback of Vietnam bodes well for the resilience of America’s military. It would be a mistake to assume, as perhaps some do, that the United States is finished as a superpower. A superpower, after all, is a country that has the military and the economic muscle to take care of its interests and its friends. There is no other country that has both capabilities – China might like to think it does, but no.
The United States is Israel’s ally of first choice. And Israel remains perhaps the only country the United States can rely upon to defend itself by itself and in coordination with American interests. But on a daily basis, Israel is not the priority for the American military.
Good friend – yes
On our side – yes
Smart – hell, yes
High-tech – yes, in spades
We don’t have to defend them – thank God!
And, for now, that might have to be enough.
Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center and Editor of inFOCUS Quarterly.