The docking of a US Navy supercarrier on the Haifa coast this week signifies deepening ties between Israel and the United States in confronting threats posed by “the global jihad axis,” according to a top IDF officer responsible for cooperation between the two militaries.
The USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier, which has been a leading part of the US bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria, arrived in Israeli waters on Saturday for a four-day sojourn before returning Wednesday to its regular positioning in the Persian Gulf. While it docked, crew members toured Israeli cities and celebrated American Independence Day in the Jewish state on Tuesday.
Commissioned in 2009, the 333-meter-long nuclear-powered ship can carry a crew of over 5,000, as well as around 90 fighter jets and helicopters. It is considered the world’s largest aircraft carrier and largest warship overall.
Too large to enter the Haifa port, the warship dropped anchor around four kilometers from the coastline. A near-constant flotilla of boats shuttled top Israeli military brass and politicians, in addition to US naval officers, to and from the vessel.
The visit to Israel, the first by a US aircraft carrier in 17 years, is “proof and testimony of the intimate, growing and deepening cooperation between the US military and the IDF,” said Lt. Col. Yaniv Kapach, head of the North American Branch in the IDF’s Planning Directorate.
“We are always thinking together about different channels where we can collaborate and develop further cooperation,” Kapach told The Times of Israel Wednesday. “This visit is a particularly large example of that cooperation, which takes place in a range of fields and is continuing to expand.”
The Planning Directorate is the central body in the IDF’s General Staff and deals with strategic planning, the building of military forces, and military organization. According to Kapach, the North American Branch oversees all cooperation with the US military from both a strategic and an operational standpoint. “We are responsible for the whole picture of the relationship between our militaries,” he said.
Israel and the US have long had close strategic ties, with Washington providing Israel more than $3 billion per year in defense aid. Last December, a $38 billion 10-year defense package to Israel, signed by then-president Barack Obama, became the largest-ever aid agreement between the US and any single country.
The US has either jointly developed or financed all three tiers in Israel’s missile defense program — the Iron Dome short-range missile interceptor, the medium-range David’s Sling, and the long-range Arrow.
But the military ties go far beyond funding from the US, according to Kapach. The two militaries have increased their joint exercises in recent years and are “developing more and more exercises that we can do together in different ways,” he said.
In May, American and Israeli pilots flew together in a joint exercise over the Arava desert in southern Israel. Last year both US and Israeli soldiers took part in the Juniper Cobra exercise, a large-scale joint missile defense drill that takes place every two years. The exercise was meant to prepare the two militaries for the threat of a missile attack, as well as allowing the armies to learn how better to work together.
While docked in Israeli waters, the USS George H.W. Bush hosted a number of exercises including the landing of Israeli Blackhawk helicopters on the deck of the ship and other air force and navy drills.
While declining to comment on specific operational cooperation that the US and Israel are pursuing together, Kapach said that joint efforts were “far reaching,” and training together on the warship and in other arenas helped prepare both militaries for the shared threats they face.
“The threats are always evolving and developing so you have to be able to maintain the growing cooperation at the same pace to be able to counter these different and new challenges,” Kapach said. “I think that both armies take advantage of the knowledge that we each have. Our understanding in the region is very deep and to some extent unique because we are here and we are part of the neighborhood. [The Americans] have a lot to gain from our knowledge and from conducting exercises with us.”
Kapach said that Israel had invited the ship to come to Haifa to coincide with a stint in the Mediterranean, where it has been “conducting a lot of attacks against the global jihad axis.” It left its home port of Norfolk, Virginia, on January 21 and has been in the region since February as a base for airstrikes against the Islamic State terror group.
Visiting the aircraft carrier on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the ship’s role in taking on the terror group.
“The war against ISIS should be seen for what it is: a clash between good and evil. And every sailor on this ship should be immensely proud that you are serving good,” Netanyahu said, calling the warship a “floating island of America and a symbol to the world of freedom and victory.”
The ship carries between 70 and 90 aircraft at a time, including a fleet of F-18 fighter jets, which are used to strike IS targets in Mosul, Raqqa and elsewhere. The vast majority of the 1,600 sorties in the past five months have targeted IS in Iraq and Syria, but a small number have targeted allies of the Syrian government.
The US carried out its first direct military action against Syria’s regime in April, firing 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Shayrat military airport in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack.
While Israel has sought to stay out of the Syrian conflict, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman met last week with his American counterpart, James Mattis, to discuss “regional strategy” and the cooperation between the Israeli and US militaries amid spiraling tensions on Israel’s northern border.
The past two weeks have seen several incidents of errant shells fired from Syria that landed in Israel. The IDF has responded with force, targeting installations of the Syrian army, which Israel holds responsible for all incidents originating from Syrian soil.
In their meeting, Mattis and Liberman discussed “regional strategy and the ongoing cooperation between the Israeli and US defense agencies,” Liberman’s office said in a statement.
Kapach said he could not comment on any changes in Israel’s cooperation with the US since President Donald Trump took office in January, but said that the American branch’s “purpose and goal is always to enhance and deepen the cooperation all the time, regardless of the administration.”
AFP contributed to this report.