But don’t forget about the massive arms caches
On Sept. 18, 2017, the United States established its first permanent manned military base in Israel at Mashabim Air Base in the Negev Desert.
Brig. Gen. Tzvika Haimovich, the head of the Israeli Air Force’s Aerial Defense Command, hailed the event as “nothing short of historic,” adding that it demonstrates the “years-old alliance between the United States and the state of Israel” and sends a “message to the region and our surroundings that our partnership with our friend the United States is important.”
The U.S. military, however, contradicted Haimovich by downplaying the base’s significance, insisting it is merely a “facility” at Mashabim featuring sleeping quarters and spaces for dining and recreation serving around 40 U.S. soldiers – not a full-fledged base.
Calling the “base” a “facility,” however, is euphemism. U.S. troops have been in the Negev since 2009 operating an X-Band radar. The likely specific radar is a high-resolution, Raytheon-built AN/TPY-2 with a range of 1,000 kilometers supporting Israel’s Patriot air-defense launchers. The AN/TPY-2 is a phased array radar which can detect and track “all classes of ballistic missiles” in their boost and terminal phases, according to the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.
That troop presence is now permanent and “will improve our abilities significantly,” Haimovich said. “It won’t get us to 100 percent, but it will get us much closer to achieving important things during war.”
While the base will help keep Iran in check, it’s easy to see why the U.S. military isn’t eager to advertise the fact that its troops are working closely with Israeli ones, as the U.S. government maintains an official position of neutrality in negotiations involving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Nevertheless, the base is just another development in the extensive, half-century relationship between America and Israel, on top of the six — at least — U.S. arms depots which have been there since the 1990s. Known as the War Reserve Stockpile Ammunition-Israel, or WRSA-I, these depots are U.S.-controlled, and the Israelis need American authorization to use any of these weapons on their own soil if need be.
Above — an IDF self-propelled howitzer during Operation Protective Edge. IDF photo. At top — a U.S. AN/TPY-2 radar. U.S. Missile Defense Agency photo
Foreign reports cited by Al-Monitor estimated that, “these depots are chock-full of ammunition, smart bombs, missiles, an assortment of military vehicles and a military hospital with 500 beds.”
Israel has long sought to win swift and decisive victories over their — often much larger — adversaries during wartime, exemplified by the historic victory over Egypt and Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. Protracted and drawn-out battles of attrition could wear down the IDF’s technological edge and inflict unacceptable losses on Israeli troops.
During the first week of the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, both Israel and the Iraq-Syria-led Arab coalition found they needed replenishment from their superpower allies. On the Israeli side, this famously resulted in the Nickel Grass operation in which the United States rushed more than 100 F-4 Phantom II jet fighters – that weren’t even fully repainted – to Israel along with thousands of tons of ammunition, tanks and artillery.
During the 2006 war with Hezbollah, the United States authorized Israel to use munitions from the WRSA-I, as it later did during the Protective Edge operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014. The same year, Washington enormously increased the number of weapons, hitherto valued at $200 million, to a whopping $1.8 billion.
American officials have often pointed out Israel’s strategic value to the United States in the wider Middle East. Since WRSA-I weapons are stored primarily for American use, Israel constitutes a major hub for American military action across the region if needed. However, the WRSA-I could likewise serve the Israeli military in a major, potential future war — one which strains its own logistical backbone.
Brig. Gen. Zvi Haimovich with U.S. Army Col. David Shank of the 10th Army Air & Missile Defense Command. IDF photo
When he was a senator, former U.S. Vice Pres. Joe Biden told the Israeli press that he views Israel “as the single greatest strength that America has in the Middle East,” adding that he invariably tells his friends to imagine how many warships or troops Americans would need were it not for their Israeli allies.
Biden, in a sense, echoed Alexander Haig, the U.S. secretary of state in the Reagan administration, who once described Israel as “the largest American aircraft carrier in the world that cannot be sunk.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warmly welcomed the visit of an actual American aircraft carrier, the USS George H.W. Bush, when she docked in the Israeli port city of Haifa in July 2017, describing the enormous warship as “a floating island of America. It is a symbol of freedom and strength and victory.”
Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz similarly described the ship’s arrival as “a timely show of American power projection and deterrence capability.”
Two years ago the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Porter participated in a joint exercise with the Israeli Navy and docked at Haifa. U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro visited the vessel and said the deployment was intended to “help defend Israel from the threat of ballistic missiles from Iran, Syria and Lebanon” adding that her presence reflected “the United States’ ongoing commitment to Israel’s security.”
Netanyahu and Haig’s statements about Israel as an American aircraft carrier are metaphorical. Israel is more properly an American arms depot – and now, a permanent air defense base.